The Nightcap is a new series that will feature a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
Kingfish Pub and Cafe is a neighborhood bar, the kind of place where the bartenders greet customers by name when they walk through the door.
“Every one has their own history here,” said Mike Bowler, one of the owners of the bar, as he sipped a Bud at the bar on a weekday afternoon. “And it all revolves around good people.” Bowler has gotten to know many of the regulars over the years—and their drinking habits—pretty well. In fact, he’s still bemoaning the bar regular who recently moved to Wisconsin, taking half the sales of Guinness with him.
Kingfish looks like an unremarkable shack from the outside and is easily missed by those driving by on Claremont Avenue, near Telegraph Avenue. It has been around since 1922, opening first as a bait and tackle shop that served beer, until the shuffleboard table was moved in during the 1950s and completed the place’s transformation into a bar. It’s small bar with low ceilings; there’s a jukebox against one wall, a free popcorn machine against another, and alcohol prices and specials written in chalk on a blackboard.
The bar crowd on this afternoon, and most afternoons, is just about all men. Most are drinking beer and watching either the Giants game on one television or a football game on the other. Among them is Bowler, who is from Massachussettes and was a customer at Kingfish for 28 years before he bought the place in 2009.
Bowler helped save the bar from near-certain death a few years ago, when it was scheduled for demolition. The bar had been closed down in 2008 when the owners of the property, which includes three other buildings, received permission to build condominiums. On the bar’s last night, a group of regulars, including Bowler and co-owner Emil Peinert, gathered at the bar to drink beer they brought in themselves because the taps were no longer working. “It was bittersweet,” Bowler said. “We had to bring our own beer, but we watched football and had a good time.”
Though Bowler and Peinert were both Kingfish regulars at the time, they didn’t know one another. They were put in touch by a former bar manager after they each inquired about buying the place. When the owners of the property decided not to move ahead with the condominium project, they agreed to a lease with Bowler and Peinert in 2009.
The new owners immediately started fixing up the place, which also meant convincing customers to bring back the sports memorabilia decorating the walls that people had taken home when it appeared the bar was headed for demolition. Among the returnees: a 30-year-old oar from the Cal rowing team that hangs from the ceiling near the entrance. “Mike Flynn took that oar home,” Bowler said, laughing as he remembered. “When we reopened, he was more than happy to bring it back in.”
Just about every inch of wall space in the Kingfish is covered by some piece of sports memorabilia, either framed photos of star players from local teams (mostly Cal) or tickets stapled to the wall from games patrons attended before a trip to Kingfish.
Any space that doesn’t have a sports reference is most likely covered in chalk, courtesy of the bar’s night crowd. During the bar’s first incarnation—for as long as Bowler had been coming to Kingfish—it was mostly a local bar for guys during the day. It served only served beer or boxed wine, and most of the customers headed home around 9 p.m. when a game ended. But after Kingfish re-opened in 2009, the new owners got a liquor license and now have a full bar as well beer bottled and on tap. That’s transformed it into a popular nightspot for a younger crowd.
The new owners didn’t anticipate the new customers, but they’re embracing the change. Six months after the bar re-opened, Bowler and Peinert stood in the back of the crowded bar on a Friday night and marveled at the sight. “I looked at Emil and said ‘Do you know any of these people?’” Bowler said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘We’ve got a whole new clientele.’”
The future of Kingfish is still undecided. While the owners of the bar do have a lease, they’re at the mercy of the property owners, who could still decide to build on the property. The Kingfish owners would like to buy the bar, or even the property, if it would mean saving the bar. Bowler said the bar needs a lot of work, including fixing a leaky roof, but its too risky for them to invest a significant amount of their own money if the bar could be shut down soon.
Bowler said the Kingfish owners would also like to install a beer garden outside, and have barbecues, but they can’t move forward on that plan until they own the place. “I think bringing a sports bar outside is a great thing to offer to this neighborhood,” he said.
One thing Bowler said will never change about Kingfish, as long as it’s open, is its status as a local bar. Times—and customers—change, but Kingfish is still the same shack with friendly bartenders and a cast of regulars, both during the day and also now at night. “[Kingfish] is just as much about the neighborhood as it ever was,” Bowler said. “The demographic of the neighborhood has changed, but anyone who walks in feels good and has a good time.”