Oakland Builds a Cocktail Community on Its Own Terms

Bartender Douglas Bedford at Double Standard.

It’s not easy keeping up with the Joneses, especially when that ambitious neighbor is San Francisco. In the Bay Area, San Francisco holds the spotlight as one of the world’s great cities—birthplace of the cable car, Ansel Adams, the United Nations and the Grateful Dead. But Oakland’s always stayed closer to its Northern California roots. It may be earthier, more blue-collar, rougher around the edges, but that’s all translated into something more real—the kind of place that can be a natural home to everyone from Jack London and Raider Nation to Sheila E. and Del the Funky Homosapien.

“I grew up in Oakland—I’m one of those dorks who’s like, ‘Woo, Oakland’s the greatest city!’ ” says Jennifer Colliau. A Bay Area bartender who helped build San Francisco’s cocktail scene at places including The Slanted Door, Colliau is turning to her hometown for opening her own bar, Here’s How, in late 2018. In so doing, she’s joining a host of bartenders, chefs, brewers and others who are transforming the Bay Area’s long-overshadowed sibling into a cocktail and culinary entity in its own right. “There’s so much I love about Oakland—we have a lot of people from different cultures coming here and integrating into Oakland, but their culture informs what they’re doing,” Colliau says. “And people here are so supportive of their communities. My career exists in San Francisco, but my bar is four miles from where I grew up.”

As San Francisco duels with New York for the unenviable title of the country’s most expensive city, many of its restaurant workers and bartenders shuttle across the bay from homes in relatively affordable Oakland—and some are setting up shop close to home. “I grew up in the Bay Area, and I’ve always felt that Oakland had a greater sense of community,” says Ali Tahsini, owner of The Double Standard in the city’s KoNo (Koreatown-Northgate) area.

After honing his cocktail credentials at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch, Tahsini opened Double Standard in early 2015. “San Francisco is known as ‘the City’—Oakland is known as ‘the Town,’ and that gives you a sense of how people live here,” he says. “Cities are hustle and bustle, but the town is more laid-back—community-focused, everyone knows everyone.”

The outdoor deck at Double Standard.

Oakland also reflects the story of California, and the country, in its own ways. Jack London Square, along the Oakland waterfront, is named for the writer best known for The Call of the Wild, but also famous in his day as a socialist and legendary drinker who later embraced the temperance cause (a favorite bar, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, still pours beer and whiskey in the square bearing London’s name). While San Francisco had the Beat Generation and the Summer of Love, Oakland had the Hells Angels (originating in Southern California but finding fertile terrain in working-class Oakland) and the Black Panther Party. And as San Francisco transforms into a wealthier and increasingly exclusive city, Oakland still reverberates with some of the larger culture’s controversies, such as the “BBQ Becky” incident earlier this year, which became a viral meme underscoring renewed racial tensions across the country.

But while it’s tempting to try and ignore Oakland’s complicated story, instead focusing only on its renewed promise, doing so would overlook part of what makes Oakland Oakland. These complexities and challenges are all a part of the evolving city, and an integral part of a growing bar culture that’s offering promise and possibility.

Double Standard moved into a Telegraph Avenue space that was operating as a dive bar in what was then a gritty neighborhood. Tahsini wanted to keep the philosophical elements that made the previous space appealing—a relaxed environment and affordable beer-and-shot combos, for example—but he added a skilled staff and a good but non-fussy cocktail menu, completely rebuilt the interior and opened a light-bedecked backyard seating area beneath three towering redwoods. “This is a place where everyone should feel welcome—we want to welcome everybody, sincerely,” he says. “Historically, Oakland’s been more diverse and balanced in demographics than San Francisco, and we’re a working-class community. At its nucleus, Oakland’s a blue-collar town.”

Hello Strange owners, Bill Stephens, Summer Jane Bell, and Josh Trabulsi.

Make Yourself at Home

Oakland and San Francisco draw from a similar pool that informs both cities’ cocktail cultures. “Oakland shares the farmers market options for produce, so it has that California cocktail style, but the city’s a little edgier and the drinks are more playful,” says Summer-Jane Bell. A former president of the San Francisco chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, Bell spent much of her career in Oakland. Last June, she and her husband Bill Stephens (a fourth-generation Oakland resident) and business partner Josh Trabulsi opened Hello Stranger in the city’s Uptown area. For Bell, opening a bar in Oakland just made sense. “A lot of artists and musicians have moved here, and a lot of bartenders live in the East Bay, so there’s a homegrown DIY aesthetic that’s less polished—it has a raw look and feel to it,” she says. “But we share the same opportunities and bounty. An East Bay bartender has lots of career opportunities, and the crowd here is more artistic, less stuffy, more fun.”

The Hello Stranger features Spanish vermouth, brandy and passion fruit syrup.

“Less stuffy, more fun” also describes the approach at Hello Stranger. DJs and a dance floor fill out the expansive space, and a long, backlit bar pours cocktails like the bar’s house drink, a “dance-floor crusher” in Bell’s words, made with Spanish vermouth, brandy and passionfruit. “We wanted to do something the neighborhood needed, with an extremely fun, sexy vibe,” Bell says. “In Oakland, that goes hand in hand with hip-hop and DJ culture, and there aren’t many bars that combine those aesthetics. We wanted a place where you can dance all night and get a great cocktail at the same time.”

The downtown area near the renovated Fox Theater is increasingly the core of Oakland’s cocktail scene. Early ventures included Flora, an Art Deco restaurant that was among the first to bring San Francisco’s cocktail culture to Oakland (and which was later joined by an adjacent bar, Fauna). The pub-like Make Westing offers cocktails like the Buffala Negra (rye whiskey, basil, balsamic syrup and ginger beer) to be sipped while playing at one of the indoor bocce courts; a similarly relaxed vibe reigns at The Dogwood, where a Bees Knees and a grilled cheese is a good start for a night out. Not far away is The Miranda, a small, eye-catching bar with drinks such as the Bamboozled (rye whiskey, lemon, rhubarb, ginger and mint), and a short walk away is Drexl, an industrial-styled bar with cocktails downstairs and Skee-Ball upstairs. Together, they’re an increasingly cohesive, walkable downtown nightlife.

Starline Social bartender Alex Maynard prepares a favorite cocktail, DJ LISA.

When Starline Social Club opened in 2015 in a three-story Victorian building built in 1893 as an Odd Fellows Hall & Saloon, the owners aimed to operate a place that was responsive to the neighborhood. “We wanted to make sure we were opening a place where everyone would feel safe and comfortable,” says Alex Maynard, one of Starline’s owners and bar managers. By converting the building into a bar and restaurant downstairs and a ballroom upstairs, the owners aimed to satisfy the needs of Oakland neighbors across the spectrum—dance parties, jazz nights, a natural-wine list by Maynard’s fellow co-manager Chris Morgan, and a cocktail list with drinks such as the DJ Lisa, with mezcal, grapefruit, cinnamon and lime. Serving these drinks in a fun environment, with a dance party upstairs and people from the neighborhood coming through, ties the concept together, Maynard says. “We fostered a culture where people can just enjoy the food and drink, and each other.”

And in a changing Oakland, that means creating a bar where everyone can feel comfortable—newcomers and longtime residents, across a spectrum of races and cultures, which Maynard says is an operative word for the bar’s staff. “We said from the beginning, we’re trying to create culture, and that takes time.”

International Incident

A cocktail expansion that started in drips and drops is now flowing freely. Appropriate for a city that was home to the original Trader Vic’s, Oakland’s downtown has a classically styled tiki bar, The Kon-Tiki, from bartender Christ Aivaliotis and business partner Matthew Reagan. Further north in the KoNo neighborhood, Blind Tiger is a basement bar and pan-Asian gastropub with a massive tiger-themed mural and cocktails including the Jabberwocky, with tequila, lime, grapefruit liqueur, Thai chili and ruby port. Not far away is Plum Bar, part of the Daniel Patterson Group, serving inventive cocktails including the Hygge in Japan (Japanese whisky, pear, aquavit, shiso and salt). Near Jack London Square is Nido, a Mexican restaurant and bar with a muscular mezcal and tequila selection, and cocktails such as the Fateful Predictions (Oaxacan rum, mezcal, violet liqueur, grapefruit and ginger). Also near the square is Sláinte, a modern Irish pub opened last year by Jackie Gallanagh and Jenny Schwarz; in addition to a substantial Irish whiskey selection, the bar features a small, tailored cocktail list from Schwarz.

Hopscotch owners Kyle Itani (left) and Jenny Schwartz.

Schwarz is co-owner of Hopscotch, which she opened with chef Kyle Itani in 2012. Hopscotch is California classic—a high-ceilinged, diner-style room with a prominent bar, and a menu that draws from the region while weaving in Japanese touches that nod to Itani’s heritage and the culinary contributions of Asian immigrants. “This is Americana, but it’s our Americana,” Schwarz explains. “The same way that Mexican food is California cuisine, it’s its own thing that exists here—Americana with a Japanese influence.”

Schwarz aims for cocktails that flow in unison with Itani’s cooking. “I’m careful to make sure our cocktails elevate the dining experience but don’t compete with the food you’re having,” she says. The preparations feature relatively simple, approachable balances of flavors, such as the Norteño, with green chile vodka from the East Bay’s own St. George Spirits, along with pineapple syrup, lemon and smoked salt.

The kitchen/bar balance is similar at Ramen Shop. Founded in 2013 by three alumni of Chez Panisse, with a bar initially headed by Chris Lane, a veteran of Flora, Ramen Shop is aimed not only at elevating the noodle experience, but at offering drinks to complement that approach. Cocktails like the Southern Pearl (gin, basil eau de vie, lemon and salt) offer bright, fragrant touches to accompany the menu, and a selection of simple highballs seem custom-built for a revamped noodle shop. “We’re influenced by Japanese highballs for sure, so we offer unusual highballs—a mezcal highball, yuzu and shisho highballs,” says Lauren Steele, who took over as bar manager earlier this year.

Ramen Shop’s tempura-fried green beans and Staystail cocktail.

Schwarz says that two years after opening Hopscotch, she and Itani already felt like the old guard of Oakland’s growing bar and restaurant scene, which is showing more fresh advances: Belcampo, the celebrated meat producer and restaurant rooted in Southern California, opened a Jack London Square location this summer. “I definitely feel excited about Oakland, and I don’t know if we’ve hit the tipping point yet,” Schwarz says. “There are some great, interesting things right now, and there’s a lot of innovation because people are doing things for the first time. They’re independent owner-operators, and it’s a really creative community.”

But don’t expect Oakland’s bars to become a big-D destination like San Francisco’s. For some bar owners, that’s just fine. “Oakland doesn’t really seek a spotlight—a lot of people are doing things that are awesome for our own residents,” Colliau says.

Tahsini agrees. “People in Oakland aren’t really impressed by the show—the show comes across as disingenuous,” he says. “Focusing on being down to earth and welcoming, I think that’s been the secret to our success here. At some point, we know Oakland is going to change. The thing that’s important to me is I built this for Oakland, for our neighborhood, for our community—not to impress anybody. Maybe that’s why we’ve been off the radar for so long, and we’re okay with that.”