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Scene & Heard: The Kingfish

on October 18, 2009

The recently re-opened Kingfish Pub & Café on Claremont Avenue east of Telegraph is essentially a squat, low-ceilinged fisherman’s hut inexplicably marqueed with a large ad for 7-Up. The paint-job is marine green—pretty much the color of Ariel the mermaid’s tail—with white trim. There are the requisite neon window hangers advertising Camel cigarettes, Corona, Sierra Nevada, and of course Pabst. There’s a couple 8.5×11 printouts also posted to the façade, directing patrons where to smoke (by the standing ashtray several yards down the sidewalk from the entrance) and to please keep it down.

After closing its doors in January 2008, the Kingfish reopened in August to the delight of dedicated regulars and dive-seekers alike. The owners were going to tear the structure down and build condos, but in the economic downturn, the project fell through. So “the Fish,” as some call it, started pouring draught again, and a full menu of booze, too—an improvement over the earlier incarnation. One thing you can’t get at the Kingfish is bait, which is what it sold when it opened in 1922.

The dark-stained wooden walls and supporting beams inside are lined with the fragmentary remains of old Giants and A’s ticket stubs stapled up years ago. Also on the walls, beams, and ceilings:

  • a California state flag (hung backwards)
  • old sports team photos and portraits of famous athletes
  • barely legible chalk scrawls and signatures by patrons (e.g. “I hella [heart] Oakland,” “Merry Xmas,” and, behind the bar, “Why walk when you can crawl?”)
  • an old hockey stick (smallish)
  • a rowing oar (approximately 20 feet in length)
  • a framed clipping from an old issue of the Montclarion—yellowing with age, it’s more than 20 years old itself—featuring an article about a guy who’s been coming to the Kingfish since before it was a bar

Today’s special? Star $6. That’s a Red Stripe beer and a shot of bourbon. Everyone under 40 gets carded at the bar—but the majority of the clientele is obviously not under 40. If you order the special, your shot glass might look a little grimy. But this isn’t the kind of place where you’d ask for a straw.

There’s a Kingfish WiFi network and shuffleboard in the long narrow back room. An Internet jukebox stands unused in the front room—an unlikely Tweedledum to an old defunct furnace’s Tweedledee. The scent of popcorn, offered gratis at a station near the front door with dispensers of melted butter and Iodized salt, wafts through the space as the late-afternoon sun streams in through the windows. People are gathering at bar shortly after 5 p.m. this Friday. The Angels-Yankees American League Championship game plays on one high-def flat-screen behind the bar, college football on another.

A man with wrap-around sunglasses perched atop a balding, brunette dome sits at the bar nursing a Coors Light (in a bottle). He wears white shorts, and a light outdoorsy vest, and white athletic socks pulled up high above astonishingly tiny K-Swiss two-tone sneakers. Mr. Coors Light introduces himself to a couple sitting to his left. She has bangs, long dark hair and wears jeans and a simple black top. His hair is slicked back with product, he has a hefty goatee, and is built like a 6-foot carton of ½ and ½.

“Nice to meet you,” Mr. Coors Light says, swiveling around on his stool to face the couple. “You guys like this place? Beautiful, right?”

With that, Mr. Coors Light pumps his fist like a big-game pitcher who just struck out A-Rod in the bottom of the ninth. Mr. ½ and ½ and his wife nod politely. A compatriot walks in—also wearing shorts, athletic socks and sneakers—and greets Coors Light with a hug, before turning to strike up a conversation with the grey-haired, khaki-clad man hunched over a pint to his right. Coors Light leaves them to catch up and directs the next in a series of friendly overtures to Mr. ½ and ½.

“She’s pretty, ya know?” he says, craning his neck around the man’s wife to meet his gaze. “Real pretty.” Mr. ½ and ½ nods while his wife chuckles politely. Coors Light asks if the pair have kids. She drops her smile and says, “We don’t have any kids yet.”

By the way they converse, most of the guys at the bar (they are mostly guys) are either regulars or see each other regularly. High-density salt-n-pepper mustaches and beards are much in evidence, as are well-worn jeans and no-frills shirts—blank Polos, simple-patterned button-ups, sports-related tees. When a new one comes in everybody gives him a hug and a friendly slap on the back. They drink pints of draught or bottles of domestic and mill about discoursing on topics that range from sports, to their wives, to other kinds of sports. Gathering on barstools around small round tables, they somewhat clandestinely circulate sheets of paper hand-written with some kind of list, annotating the sheets with ballpoint pens and passing them on to their comrades. The corner table near the only wall socket in view is only half occupied, but sorry, you can’t sit there just yet—the seats are being saved for someone. “He won’t stay long,” a rare female wearing a black server’s apron says. “He’s just coming to get some money from me.”

When an infield pop-up falls untouched between Angels infielders Erick Aybar and Chone Figgins, the crowd comes alive. Apparently most Kingfishers are rooting for the Yankees, but it’s unclear. The front room soon has filled up with a couple dozen men and the din raises to such a pitch you can only make out a few fragments of conversation.

  • “The linebackers aren’t making many tackles.”
  • “They need to put the ball in his hands when they can.”
  • “… the 82nd Airborne…”
  • “Oh, there’s Sheila!”
  • “No note-takin’ in here now. He he he…”

Fade to black.

1 Comment

  1. Bob Neuman on November 7, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I have been a Fish patron since 1960. I have mastered its shuffleboard and endured its toilet. I have grieved since it stopped serving clam chowder and salami on rye. But I am terrifically happy it has reopened. I have been in Washington, DC for some time, but always made my holy obligation of a visit everytime I returned. When is the original Kasmper’s going to reopen?

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