The Nightcap is a new series that will feature a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
The Café Van Kleef Book Club is well underway—there’s an almost-empty bottle of Cazadores Tequila on the long, dark brown table, and lime, salt and used shot glasses strewn about. Surrounding the table are members of the book club— local artists, most who are middle-aged men, some of whom have known each other as long as 30 years.
They get together every Thursday afternoon in the dimly-lit and eccentrically-decorated bar to share stories and catch up, eat popcorn and have a few drinks. They can be loud, and a little profane, and they clearly enjoy one another’s company. They also never really talk about books. “It’s really just an excuse to get together,” says one of the members, a painter with a shaved head and long, graying goatee, who goes by the name “Dog.”
The book club has been meeting at Café Van Kleef on Telegraph Ave. and 16th Street in Oakland for about the past seven years. “When we first started coming down here, it was dead,” he says.
Back in those days, Café Van Kleef was the only bar on the block. Now, it has other company nearby, like The Den at the Fox, Dogwood and SomaR.
Van Kleef stands out as the place that has every inch of the walls packed with unusual artifacts: swords and shields from France, the bell from a boxing ring and a growling polar bear head. It’s also known for offering live music at night and serving a tasty Greyhound (that’s vodka and grapefruit juice).
Dog chalks up the success of the place to bar owner Peter Van Kleef, an artist and Dutch native who grew up in Oakland and built much of the place, including the long, dark bar, with his own hands. “I love Peter, he’s a crazy painter,” Dog says. “He’s a pioneer. This is the only art bar in the Bay Area—there’s no TV.”
Van Kleef is 60, with short grey hair that spikes a little in the front. He’s at the bar this Thursday evening to meet with the book club, and he’s wearing flip-flops and metal bracelets that clang against the bar as he moves his hands. He’s constantly talking fast, usually to tell a crazy story or a joke. After he rings the boxing bell to prove that it works, a customer asks if that’s the “free drink” bell. “Sure,” Van Kleef replies. “But only if you drink Blue Agave tequila. It’s all I drink.” Moments later, after downing a shot himself and slamming the glass on the bar, he rings the bell again.
Throughout the evening, Van Kleef makes his way around the bar talking to customers and drinking with them, and reminiscing with regulars and hanging out with the book club (he’s a charter member). One customer says he thinks that at least ten couples who are now married met at this bar.
“This is so rewarding,” Van Kleef says of the social connections people make at the bar. “People come by five or six years later and say, ‘Do you remember me?’ and I say, ‘Kind of.”
The bar’s décor is all Van Kleef’s work; he collected most of the artifacts during a five-year trip around the world, and just about all the artwork hanging in the bar is his, including a dark, flat, green-and-red DNA sculpture that hangs directly above the bar. He’ll happily share a story about how he acquired a particular artifact in the bar, or spin off a yarn about his travels through Afghanistan. “He’s got a lot of stories—he bubbles over with stories all the time,” said Ena Dallas, a bartender at Café Van Kleef’s for almost seven years. “He has a lust for life that’s given him a lot of things to say.”
Van Kleef opened up the place as a café and art gallery in 2000 and then changed it to an art bar when he got a liquor license in 2002. Back then, it was often empty. It was a tough sell convincing people to come downtown, he said. “There would be one person at the bar, and I’d be thinking, ‘You could fly an airplane through this place,’” Van Kleef said.
But as the area grew, especially with the Fox Theatre re-opening in 2009, so did the business at Van Kleef’s. Its downtown location makes it an easy stop for local government officials, and Van Kleef said Jerry Brown, the governor of California, was a reliable customer and spent a few New Year’s Eves at Van Kleef’s. “I like to say my buddy got a job with the state of California,” Van Kleef said. “He’s the governor.”
Van Kleef said he’s happy there are more bars and restaurants in the neighborhood now, and that Uptown has transformed into a nightlife destination in the years he’s owned the bar. “People used to say, ‘Aren’t you worried about other bars?’ and I’d say, ‘No, no, that’s wonderful.’ The more bars, the better. I celebrate and welcome all the bars,” he said.
As the place morphed into a bar from a coffee shop, Van Kleef also transformed what was originally a sculpture platform into a small stage in the back on which rock, jazz, blues bands now perform Thursday through Saturday nights (“and sometimes Wednesday,” Van Kleef said).
Van Kleef said he’d like to one day open another bar in the area and call it “Bar Baric,” but doesn’t have the money. (“Get it?” he said. “Bar-baric.”) For now, he’s happy with how Café Van Kleef has changed—and stayed the same—over the years. He doesn’t make it out to the bar as much as he used to, but he’s still there most Thursdays to check in with the book club.
“I’m happy he’s successful, and the bar is successful,” Dog says as the book club members start to leave the table and head for the exit. “All this,” he adds, motioning to the walls covered in artifacts, “all this crap, which I love, is a museum in a way.”