The Nightcap is a series that features a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
For about three years, the most recent owners of Eli’s Mile High Club waited, hoping that they’d be able to turn the place into what it once was and what they thought it should still be—a live music venue.
Eli’s Mile High Club, a grimy punk bar and restaurant located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way near the MacArthur Maze, was originally a blues bar. Back then, musical legends like James Brown and Etta James performed on its stage. Eli’s opened in 1974 and held blues shows until 1992, when legendary owner Troyce Key died. In the nearly two decades since, Eli’s has been through numerous owners—as well as numerous complaints from neighbors, especially over noise from the music and people outside the club.
When Eli’s was bought in 2008 by two men in their 20s—Jason Herbers and Geoff Melville—the city and neighborhood stopped them from hosting live music before they could get started. An application for a cabaret license with the City Administrator’s office, which is required for live music, effectively sat in limbo until January 2011.
“Our dream was to have a live music venue here,” Herbers said. “But that dream got kicked in the butt by the city because of all the problems in the past. It took almost three years for us to show we were responsible enough to do this, and in the meantime it ate into our pockets quite a bit.”
The new version of Eli’s is basically a punk rock club, which now hosts about 15 shows per month—generally every other night, mostly punk, garage rock and heavy metal shows. Both local and touring bands take the black stage at Eli’s, and the place also hosts secret shows for more famous bands, like Sleep, a metal band from San Jose, and Ghoul, a metal band from Oakland.
The bar’s overall appearance also captures the stark and aggressive punk rock style. Most of the walls are painted in dark red, and the black spray paint on the cement floor is coming off in places, especially right in front of the stage, revealing a red layer from the past. Walking towards the back, there’s a staircase that leads up to a separate tattoo parlor, and a door that opens to the back patio, where there are picnic tables and brightly-colored graffiti covers the walls.
But much of Eli’s blues history is still on display at the club, and mixes in with its new identity. On the bar, “Home of West Coast Blues” is written in blue tile. Behind the bar, paper signs advertise a “workin’ man’s special”—a shot of whiskey and a beer for $5. Posters from the ’70s and ’80s advertising Bay Area blues shows decorate the walls in a poolroom frequented by people with spiky hair and tattoo sleeves.
Because of its long history as a music institution, Herbers said many customers weren’t sure what to make of Eli’s when the music was off. The bar serves food, mostly of the pub variety—sandwiches and fried things—along with beer and cocktails, but the large stage area was still empty every night. A year and a half ago, Herbers decided to turn part of the space into an art gallery, so the owners marked off an area to display local artists’ work, an unkempt wall where photos and paintings hang so close to one another that it’s difficult to distinguish the different pieces.
This April, Eli’s owners also launched a complimentary business, a tattoo parlor called The Clubhouse Tattoo Shop that’s located upstairs. During the blues days, the room probably used to be storage space or a dressing room. Today, colorful pictures of tattoos are stuck to white walls, and bottles of ink decorate the shelves.
The tattoo shop is a separate business from the bar and is co-owned by Herbers along with Jay Paule and Billy Jack Armtrout. “A lot of the people that come (to the bar) are involved in tattoo culture, and art and music,” Herbers said, “and a lot of people that support art and music support tattoo culture. It’s really worked out well.”
But still, without music, the owners weren’t able to draw a large enough crowd to pay the bills. Herbers said staffers in the City Administrator’s Office kept telling Eli’s owners they had to prove they could to keep the neighbors happy and keep the place quiet, so the owners poured thousands of dollars into improving the soundproofing, added security and made a concerted effort to improve relations with the neighbors by hearing their concerns and trying to address them. “We thought, ‘OK, we got sold a lemon,” Herbers said. “How do we make the best of a bad situation?”
Ultimately, Herbers said, the burgeoning East Bay music scene helped convince officials Eli’s should have its cabaret license. “People can’t afford to be artists and musicians and live in San Francisco,” he said. “So Oakland’s big thing now is to keep the money on this side of the bridge. And how are they going to do that? Make sure the nightlife is here, so people aren’t going to San Francisco to spend their money.”
While Herbers said he still isn’t making a lot of money running the place, he’s happy Eli’s this becoming a home base for the punk scene in North and West Oakland. He’s also happy to see Eli’s once again be a place people pack to see a show.
Now the trick, he said, is to keep the place going. “Institutions like Eli’s need to preserved and kind of nourished,” he said. “I think that if people just play their part in coming here and supporting the bands that play here, this place will survive.”