The Night Light lives up to its name. The brand new watering hole, which opened its doors on Broadway in Jack London Square about two weeks ago, is a bright spot when the sun goes down—a place where Oaklanders can gather on comfortable bar stools and enjoy smart cocktails and local beers.
Owners Doug Kinsey and Johnny Nackley, both veterans of the bar and restaurant industry, bought the space just over a year ago, but before they took the building over, tragedy struck. The space, which was then Sweet Jimmie’s restaurant, was the site of a double homicide that rocked the neighborhood. This might have dissuaded some, but Kinsey and Nackley decided to “bring new energy to the space” with a full-scale renovation, Kinsey says.
After months navigating city permits and red tape, work started just after Christmas, 2011. Seventy-five days—long, long days—later, Kinsey, Nackley and a team of their craftiest friends finished The Night Light. The result is, in a word, gorgeous. The ambiance is from another time—the long, dark wooden bar and trim a paisley, deep red wallpaper, and the classic light fixtures that fill the vast room recall a Prohibition-era speakeasy. The chairs are leather, studded with gold buttons, and the bar stools are comfortably wide, or “big booty approved,” according to Kinsey.
For many months before they found the space, the pair collected one-of-a-kind items, like lights from an old boat, a vintage chandelier, and the Night Light’s “crown,” a wooden fixture from a speakeasy in New Orleans that sits proudly above the bar. “We were searching for stuff that we liked, and people were making fun of us,” says Kinsey. “They’d say, ‘You don’t even have a even have a bar yet.’ But if we hadn’t started looking early, we wouldn’t have this stuff. We’d have mass-manufactured stuff.”
This attention to detail is everywhere—even the wallpaper by the bathroom was a labor of love. Kinsey spent 17 hours painting the embossed paper to make it look like tooled leather, and Nackley did much of the woodworking himself. The cocktails, too, are lovingly crafted. Kinsey and Nackley developed them over many months, taking old favorites and adding personal twists.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” says Kinsey. “There are new takes on old classics, but we didn’t want to be too avant-garde or pretentions. We don’t have any cilantro basil mojitos. We drew inspiration from things we love. It’s a little like rock and roll: We’re doing something similar to what we like, but doing it a little bit differently.”
There’s a spin on the Manhattan, of course, and a version of James Bond’s vesper martini that The Night Light calls “The Lambretta.” The classic paloma is a tequila-based cocktail has been reborn here as the “Diamond Dove.” And the “Wild and Free?” “That’s just the best damn whiskey ginger ale you’ll ever have,” Nackley promises.
The bar makes all its own simple syrups from honey, maple and confectioner’s sugar. While they do offer soda in its high-fructose form, they also carry Free Tree’s natural line of tonics and soft drinks. The beer on tap is mostly local. Some of it, like Anchor Steam and Lagunitas, are area favorites, but others like the Linden Street beers (an Oakland brewer) and Trumer Pils (based in Berkeley) are straight from the East Bay. The wine is sourced from Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda.
Food is not on the menu as of yet, but Kinsey and Nackley don’t mind—actually, they encourage it—if customers grab takeout from Nation’s next door, or Ginza, or any of the other eateries in Jack London and bring it to the bar.
So far, turnout has been solid, but there’s no rest for the weary in this business—Kinsey and Nackley have already shifted their attention to the floor above the bar, which they plan to turn into a music club of sorts. “We’re going to call it The Night Light Upstairs,” says Kinsey. “It’s going to be a great place to see awesome bands or a burlesque show, but you’ll have to be a member to go. But anyone can be a member, as long as they follow our rules. You know, no cell phones. No ass-grabbing.”
The Night Light Upstairs is slated to open in about six weeks, but until then, the downstairs is up and running, ready for business. It’s open every day, from 4 pm to 2 am, and takes cash only.
For more information, check out the bar’s Facebook page .
Want learn about other Oakland watering holes? Check out our bar guide, The Nightcap.