The area around Broadway and 41st Street has been called a transitional neighborhood for as long as Chet Perry can remember. He’s lived nearby for 30 years.
“It just hasn’t really transitioned into anything different,” he said.
The same can be said about the bar on that corner Perry co-owns, George Kaye’s. It first opened in 1934, right after Prohibition ended, serving drinks to neighborhood folks in the same small, wood-paneled room the bar occupies today. Much of Kaye’s has remained the same for decades, in fact, like the 1950′s cash register, the original icebox and bathroom doors, and the wood bar. The sign out front that reads “Geo Kaye’s.”
“We’ve done some repairs, but essentially it’s the same layout,” said Perry, a big 56-year-old guy who wears thin-framed glasses and has short dark hair. They don’t serve food, though there are packets of popcorn and a microwave behind the bar. There are three beers on tap. The alcohol selection is similarly restrained, and the bartenders prefer the customers keep their orders simple. There is no happy hour. Just “everyday low prices,” Perry said.
What has kept the place going strong over the years is the people who come in, Perry said. The neighborhood regulars have come and gone over the years, but the eclectic mix always seems to include blue-collar types, college students, artists and musicians. “I get to meet people of all walks of life, all ethnicities, all levels of education,” Perry said. “All interests and all talents.”
The Kaye family–there really was an original George–owned the place until 1995, when Perry and his friend David Biddle, now 58 and a longtime local bar owner, bought the place from the estate of Bob Kaye, George Kaye’s son. Perry and Biddle have split bartending duties since, with Perry taking the day shift and Biddle working at night. “We essentially bought ourselves jobs when we bought this place,” Perry said.
Perry started coming to George Kaye’s in 1980, soon after moving to Oakland. He was working as a stagehand at the time, traveling around the country to help build and take down sets for Broadway shows like “Peter Pan”, “Hello Dolly” and “On Your Toes.” He liked the regulars’ neighborly camaraderie, when he first dropped in; the first time he walked through Kaye’s double doors, he was greeted by bartender and manager Guido Riccoboni, whom everyone called “Ric.”
Perry introduced himself to Riccoboni and told him he had just moved to the neighborhood. “Ric raised his head and said, ‘Hey everybody, we got a new one! What’s your name, kid?’” Perry said. “And I told him, and he said, ‘Everybody, this is Chet.’ And for the rest of the night, I was not allowed to buy a drink for myself.”
Soon after, Perry was bringing his own cranberry juice into the bar to make “Cape Codders” (cranberry juice and vodka) for anyone else who wanted one. “It wasn’t the practice for bars to have cranberry juice on hand, back then, in this part of the world,” Perry said. “But it used to be a popular drink on Cape Cod, where I used to be a commercial fisherman.”
Over the years, when he wasn’t on the road, Perry came to know Riccoboni and the Kaye family well. In fact, the idea of owning the bar first came to him at Bob Kaye’s funeral in 1995, when he asked Kaye’s stepson what he planned to do with the place. “It was time to get off the road,” Perry said. “And I thought it would be great to take over my neighborhood bar.”
While the look of the place has stayed the same, the clientele has shifted over the years. When Perry was sipping Cape Codders in the ’80s and ’90s, it was more of a daytime spot, and closed at 8 p.m. Perry and Biddle extended the hours, though, and a punk rock crowd started to frequent the place. The new owners responded with appropriate CD choices in the jukebox. The punk crowd eventually faded, and now it’s more of a neighborhood mix at night – Biddle calls it the “post-cabin fever, post-dinner, post-show” crowd.
At the same time, the regular daytime crowd has also thinned. Biddle said he thinks it’s because people don’t drink as much during the day anymore (“People don’t drink like they used to,” he said. “It’s the 21st century.”) Perry said it’s because a lot of the regulars have passed away. Some are memorialized in framed photos behind the bar: smiling faces of older gentlemen, and one of someone riding a horse, and one of a smiling Riccaboni.
The jukebox is still a draw, though now it plays MP3s and has a wide selection. Kaye’s also uses one wall for local artists’ displays that change about every month, and Biddle always throws the artists an opening-night party.
Biddle and Perry said they like the way Kaye’s hasn’t changed much, though business has taken a bit of a dip during the recession. Neighborhood bars are a great investment, because business is steady. “You just open the door and pour a good drink for a good price, and you’re fair to people, and you always make dough,” he said. “Other places that are trendy come and go.”
Biddle said he’s also met many friends while tending bar, people he sees during the daylight hours as well. Biddle is a pilot, in his non-bartending hours, and owns a four-seater Cessna 172 plane he keeps in Napa. He’s currently giving flying lessons to a customer. “I don’t charge him anything,” Biddle said. “He buys me lunch.”
Perry said he’s happy just keeping his neighborhood bar going. He works during the day and keeps the TV on, usually to a news channel like the BBC. When some regular customers walk in on a Thursday afternoon, he doesn’t even have to take their order. He just walks over and pours a pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon. When everything is going well, he said, there’s no reason to change.
“We’re just happy to keep this place open,” he said.
The Nightcap is a series that features a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.