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The Nightcap: Hanging out at Room 389

on September 9, 2011

The Nightcap is a new series that will feature a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.

Room 389, located at Grand Avenue and State Avenue in the Adams Point neighborhood, is a neighborhood bar and cocktail lounge with a relaxed atmosphere, which is exactly what the owners, three guys in their late thirties, would be looking for themselves when going out at night.

Room 389 is owned by two brothers, Daniel and Benjamin Cukierman, and their friend, Jamie Bernal. “We’re a little older than we used to be,” said Benjamin Cukierman, the bar’s general manager. “I can’t go to clubs anymore. I’m 36, my brother’s 38 and Jamie’s also 38. I think it’s important to know what you would want to do, and stick with it.”

The format that has worked so well for them, he said is “good cocktails, but not pretentious, good music but without the club style and loudness, cover charge and line at the door. And this neighborhood was just perfect for it.”

Soul music reverberates throughout Room 389, but not loud enough to drown out a conversation with the person next to you. In the front room, there’s a long wood bar with a steel top where people are sitting on bar stools. In the back room, there’s a DJ playing in a wooden booth, with a record library behind him. Well-dressed people are seated on grey couches, and aluminum foil wrappers and the remains of tacos from the truck out front are scattered around the short brown tables in front of them. Brightly colored paintings decorate the walls.

The entrance and front deck of Room 389.

This isn’t the brothers’ first bar venture. When Daniel and Benjamin Cukierman were in their early 20s and just out of college, they ran their first bar at the Shattuck Hotel in downtown Berkeley. Daniel quit his job at the bank to run the bar, and Benjamin only had bar-backing experience from his college days at UC Santa Cruz. “It was a bunch of 21-year-old kids having free reign in a bar,” Benjamin said. “It was dangerous.”

After Benjamin quit to go to law school, Daniel opened the Shattuck Down Low in downtown Berkeley, a club with a DJ, dance floor and bar. At the time, he said, there weren’t many clubs in the East Bay where you could party. But a decade later, as he was thinking about opening another place and eyeing the spot at 389 Grand, he wanted it to fill a different void, this time for more of an “adult spot.” “As I got older, I started to look less to the club scene and just wanted to go to a really nice bar that wasn’t too loud and was chill,” he said. “It happened to be at a time where Oakland was having this blossoming nightlife.”

Meanwhile, said Benjamin Cukierman, he’d realized he wasn’t going to be happy being a lawyer, so he quit. He spent a brief time training to be a firefighter, and then, he said, “My brother called me out of the blue and asked, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back in this business. But it worked out well. We work well together.”

Room 389 opened in August 2010, in a building that was previously the Dapper Sports Lounge, and the Golden Bear before that. Business at 389 has steadily grown since, and each of the last five months set a record profit, Benjamin said. “It’s fun to see the response,” he said, “to come down here and see everybody having a good time.”

Benjamin said the reason the bar is popular is because people in the neighborhood were looking for a chill place to hang out without having to go to a noisy dance club. The bar serves fresh fruit, artisan-style cocktails, but also dive bar staples like Pabst Blue Ribbon, to go along with a shot. The weekday crowd is mostly made up of regulars, he said, people who were looking for a cool place to hang out. “I think they’d really been desiring something like this,” he said. “A place where they can come hang out with their friends without having to yell over the music.”

The front room of 389 has a wall lined with pages from books.

The music is handled by Bernal, who gets behind the decks a few times a month himself, and owns the records stacked behind the booth. Some nights, there is a live band that plays French gypsy music. Other deejays spin on the remaining nights or during happy hour, when the music is usually old funk and soul, or some old school hip-hop. “A friend of mine told me they call it ‘dad rap’ now,” Benjamin said, shaking his head. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ That hurt me a little bit.”

The bar will soon be starting a trivia night on Wednesdays thanks to customer requests. Though they don’t serve food at 389, there’s usually a taco truck out front at night, and on Tuesday night, A Taste of Africa serves catered food. Recently, a cafe called “Kitchen 388” opened up across the street, although it’s not owned by the guys who own the bar.

Benjamin said the plan is to open the bar during the day as a café as well, and take more advantage of the outdoor seating in the front and large windows that bring in light. They’ll only serve coffee in the mornings, not beer. “Sundays sure, for a football game, but not on a Tuesday morning,” Benjamin said. “We’re not trying to offer that to the neighborhood.”

The brothers say they are happy about what they can offer to the neighborhood—a cool place to hang out, meet people and get a drink. The kind of place where “people our age can get a drink and talk,” as Daniel put it.

The format has worked. “Everybody seems to be having a good time, from our customers, to the staff,” Benjamin said. “It’s great to see Jamie here all the time even though he doesn’t need to be. We care about this place and the neighborhood so much, and you can tell by how much we’re here.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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