The Nightcap is a series that features a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
Travis Dutton and Patrick Lynch were in the middle of band practice in late 2009 when they came up with the idea to open a bar together. Lynch, on drums, turned to Dutton, who was holding a guitar, and asked, “Have you ever thought about opening your own bar?”
“He was like, ‘Yeah, all the time,’” Lynch recalled. “I was like, ‘Let’s do it then!’”
At the time, Dutton and Lynch were playing in a mellow rock band with a name they’re now too embarrassed to share. Lynch, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in Eureka, had been playing music and working a variety of jobs since returning to the Bay Area 13 years ago; at the time he was managing the vintage clothing store Pretty Penny. Dutton is from Oakland and had been tending and managing bar for 11 years at places around the East Bay like Radio Bar on 13th Street and Club Mallard in Albany.
The two found an ideal spot on 19th Street in downtown Oakland, where they opened Bar Three Fifty-Five. The building used to house a jazz bar called Soft Nose. Dutton said he’d noticed Soft Nose was closed at times when a bar would typically be open, like at 8 p.m. on Friday nights, and had coveted the spot for his own bar. He already knew the area well; he grew up in Oakland and when he was a kid, his mom worked at the World Savings Bank across the street from the bar. He used to have lunch at Burger Gourmet next door.
Then he drove by one day and saw a notice of closure on the door. “We said, ‘All right, now is our time to go for it,” Dutton recalled.
Lynch, though, said he had some reservations about starting a business in the location because the space was such a mess the first time they checked it out. The white ceiling was nicotine-stained; there were fake plants all over the place and dusty bottles behind the bar. Lynch said he thought it looked abandoned. “I looked around and thought, ‘This place is a wreck,” Lynch said. “This place is going to take us forever to turn into somewhere people are going to want to come to.’”
However, he said, it’s easier to obtain the necessary permits to open a bar in a place where one existed before. After the owner of the building, Linda Bradford, expressed interest in becoming a partner in the business as well, Dutton and Lynch welcomed her aboard and went for it.
Lynch, Dutton and their friend Justin Weidenbach then rebuilt everything but the bar tops and the cabinets behind the bar. They redid the floors and ceilings and added mirrors. They built red oak wooden columns that have lights inside and are placed behind the bar. They painted the walls, and stayed up all night stenciling an intricate gold design painted over a blue-green wall opposite the bar. They also refurbished a stage in the back for either live music or dancing, and a DJ booth next to the bar.
There aren’t any windows, so the place is dimly lit. Their solution was a series of small oval glass chandeliers—Bradford had two such chandeliers in her garage, and by searching through eBay and craigslist, they were able to round up a handful of others that looked just like them. “We thought we could find something in a similar vein, but we found some that look exactly the same,” Dutton said.
After about eight months of work, they finally opened in August, 2010. The first night was the busiest night they’ve had—“We have a lot of friends,” Lynch said, “and I told everyone I know”—though business has been steady since.
Three Fifty-Five opens at 4 p.m., and the afternoon crowd is heavy on people who work in the area. But the bar is also a nightlife destination in the evening – there are DJs playing a variety of music, from soul to country, seven nights a week – and is crowded on the weekend with young people who go to shows at the Fox Theater or one of the other half-dozen bars that have sprung up in the area in recent years, like Dogwood or Make Westing.
Dutton said the idea was to create a nice atmosphere to have a drink, but not a bar where someone would feel out of place wearing a hoodie. “Somewhere that’s nice but approachable by anybody, really,” he said.
After working in bars every year since he was 21, and touring to all 50 states playing music, Dutton said he’s happy to settle down and have a job he can put all his effort in to. He said he hasn’t had time to play music since because he’s been too busy with managing the bar, and all the little things that can come up. The house-made tonic water, for instance, takes him an entire day to craft. “I just kind of wanted to try something different,” Dutton said, “and there’s a lot of creativity involved [in owning a bar], sort of like being in a band.”
People do ask them whether they’re ever going to use the bar’s stage to play a reunion rock show. “I don’t know,” Dutton said. “It seems kind of weird to be like, ‘OK now people have to sit through my music.’ But you never know.”