The Year of the Lounge

Oakland's new nightspots incorporate a homey feel.

A strange thing happened to me at The Layover the other weekend. There I was, sharing the atomic patch of a dance floor with a First Friday crush, singing along to Slick Rick‘s classic lyrics:

There lived a little boy, who was misled. Oomph. By another little boy, and this is what he said. Ouch. As regular as the beat, an object knocked at the back of my leg. Not the usual misplaced foot or overextended booty. Something hard, solid, wooden.

As he went outside and the cops was all ovah, I sashayed around to face the culprit, and discovered, there in the middle of the floor, a rocking chair. As such objects tend to be, this one was accompanied by an old man, plopped among its worn cushions, rocking.

You may not find grandma’s furnishings inside every new nightspot, but rump-against-furniture collisions have become a common hazard of the local nightlife, as all the new joints in town — and there are many — have one thing in common: a little bit of everything, in just a little bit of space. Not quite clubs, they are more than just a bar.

“The thing about these cocktail lounges is, they are not intended to be destinations, but they end up being destinations,” said RaeAnne Turner, one of the owners of The Layover, whose living-room aesthetic epitomizes the cozy feeling. When Turner, her husband, and two friends opened their establishment just over a year ago, they were going for a modern, West Coast, Cheers kind of a feeling. “A communal spot where you can get a cocktail, work on your laptop, somewhere convenient and neighborhood-like.”

To achieve that concept, they combed through flea markets and antique shops for an eclectic decor. Velvet purple wallpaper sets off the bar, and mismatched furniture, curtains, and vintage lamps create a look that immediately feels lived in, inviting, ineffable. “It’s this sexy, bright-colored, dingy-with-the-flair-of-renewal, kinda like old turning into new but still old,” Turner said. Like a good house party, there’s space for sitting and talking, and space for dancing and drinking. But in 1,400 square feet, there’s just not very much of it.

The same could be said about Room 389, which took over the old Golden Bear space on Grand Avenue earlier this year. Rather than the living room of an eclectic aunt like The Layover, its vibe feels like that of a homely neighbor. Bored while your friend is in the bathroom? Pick up one of the encyclopedic tomes piled under the corner lamp. Didn’t use all your ice cubes? Feed them to the potted ferns on the bar. The front patio is complete with a wrought-iron fence and barbecues on sunny days. All that seems to be missing from the neighborly atmosphere is a strip of Astroturf for a game of croquet.

Not all of Oakland’s new lounges are so dressed down. On the other end of the spectrum is Era Art Bar and Lounge, with its high ceilings, oversize leather chaises, and Manhattan cool. Speaking of Manhattan, the amber and dark wood finishes at the new Bar Three Fifty-Five invites thirsty visitors to order a retro libation and sip slowly in the embrace of a black leather bench.

It’s a risky time to open any business, and nightclubs — with the added burden of various licenses and fees, as well as the propensity to be blamed for the evils of the evening — have it harder than most. Those taking that risk in Oakland are doing so in resourceful ways — in old buildings of modest sizes. “Maybe we’ve all been a little conservative with the space we have to work with,” said Turner. Hence, the occasional rocking chair on the dance floor.

But in these otherwise uncomfortable times, a lounge can be just the right place to let go of your worries, even if you’re falling in the lap of a stranger. “I think that’s the nature of Oakland,” Turner said. “It’s a very comfortable place, as long as you have community.”


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