The Nightcap: Playing bocce ball Uptown at Make Westing
on September 30, 2011
The Nightcap is a series that features a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.
When Glenn Kaplan was growing up in Oakland in the ‘90s, he never thought about going out in the Uptown. There really wasn’t anything to do.
“When I was younger, I’d go to the Mission to go get a drink,” he said. “But now there’s an area for people to go out in Oakland. I mean, you’ve got bars left and right down here.”
Kaplan’s bar, Make Westing, which has a bocce court, is the newest of the Uptown bars, located on Telegraph Avenue and 18th Street. Kaplan co-owns it with his longtime friend, Chris Foott, and they planted it amidst a cluster of bars—SomaR, Dogwood, Café Van Kleef, The Layover. Along with the re-opening of the Fox Theatre in 2009, Kaplan said these bars have helped transform an area that used to be desolate after dark into a nightlife destination.
“It’s awesome to be a part of the resurgence of Oakland,” Kaplan said. Nowadays, he said, to get a drink, “I don’t go to San Francisco.”
Make Westing is named after a story written by Jack London and opened at the end of August in a space that used to be a jewelry store and a church, but had sat empty for years. It is one large room—3,800 feet of space—with 18-foot-high ceilings and a lot of black décor and concrete.
The bar has an industrial feel. The floor is Douglass Fir and is supposed to look like a workshop, Foott said. The walls and columns are mahogany paneling built by the owners and their friends earlier this year. The bar is made of slate from old pool tables, and a few pockets can still be seen on the corners. Some of the tables are made of steel salvaged from Urban Ore in Berkeley.
The design comes from the owners’ friend, Matt Maddy, who wanted to capture some of the dark, outlaw culture of Oakland’s past. “His initial thought was, in the ‘60s, San Francisco was really hippie-ish, but Oakland was really gritty and had this sort of Hell’s Angels atheistic,” Kaplan said. “So he started playing off that.”
Because the bar is so big, there was some empty space the owners had to fill. Hence, a court for bocce, an Italian ball game where teams compete to place a large ball closer to a small ball than the opponent. Kaplan lived near a bar in Brooklyn, New York, that had a bocce court inside and thought it was a great idea, so they consulted with a Marin business that installs bocce courts. The court at Make Westing is long, with red, blue and green balls and a gold granite dust floor. “It’s been a really big success,” Kaplan said of the court. “It’s a cool little drinking game.”
On a Thursday afternoon before Make Westing opens, Kaplan, Foott, bartender Caroline Pagel and other staff are preparing for a private party. They’ve done quite a few; they recently hosted one for Oakland-based Internet radio company Pandora. The night before, Oakland rapper Too Short was among the guests at another party.
While Kaplan wipes down a shelf near the bocce court, Pagel is chopping up fruit and vegetables for cocktails. Make Westing serves a number of signature cocktails— the most popular, the “Garden Gimlet,” is made with gin, basil, lime and cucumber. “I think we could challenge a restaurant with how many cucumbers we go through” in a night, said Pagel, who designed the drink. Make Westing also serves beer and wine, and will begin serving food next week (mostly sandwiches), Kaplan said.
Between cleaning duties, Kaplan takes a break at a steel table in front of the bocce court. Kaplan is 34 years old with brown curly hair and wearing a white v-neck T-shirt and jeans, and he moves and talks at a fast pace.
Kaplan grew up in Oakland, went away to college at Oberlin in Ohio, and eventually settled in New York, where many of his friends were opening bars and restaurants. He and Foott, who was living in England at the time, invested in a bar in Brooklyn together. Two years ago, they decided to bring what they learned in New York and apply it to their hometown. “We always wanted to come to Oakland,” Kaplan said. “I love this city.”
The New York bar scene had a big influence on Kaplan—he borrowed the bocce court idea from Brooklyn’s Union Hall bar. He also sees similarities between Oakland and the neighborhoods he lived in New York, like the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, which transformed into nightlife destinations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I see that happening” in Oakland, Kaplan said. “There are so many bars and restaurants and nightlife options coming around here.”
“People ask us if we’re going to do live music,” he continued. “I’m like, ‘Why would we do live music? We’ve got the Fox right there, The New Parish right there, the Uptown right there.”
Make Westing has solid business throughout the week, Kaplan said but it gets especially busy on First Fridays, weekend nights and when there’s a show at the Fox. On those nights, the entire area is buzzing and the streets are packed, a far cry from the dark streets and empty buildings that characterized the Uptown area when Kaplan was growing up.
“We just want to be a part of the rebuilding of this entire neighborhood,” Kaplan said, “and continue to grow with it.”
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