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The Nightcap: Dinner, drink and music at Disco Volante

on November 18, 2011

Disco Volante, a bar and restaurant, is located in a green terracotta Art Deco building on the corner of 14th and Webster Streets in downtown Oakland that over the years has housed an eclectic assortment of establishments: a bank, a Korean restaurant, a New Orleans-themed restaurant, and a plus-sized women’s lingerie store.

“Old Oaklanders remember the building as having the biggest bra you’ve ever seen in the window,” said Kevin Cook, one of the owners of Disco Volante. “One of the early possible names [for the bar] was going to be ‘The Bra Shop,’ but that for various reasons got voted down.”

Back in the spring of 2010, Cook and the bar’s four other owners—Kenny Annis, Dow Batten, Damon Gallagher and Tim Tolle—had just settled on the former lingerie shop as the space for their new business. They liked the location—not quite in the Uptown are near the Fox Theater where rents are higher, but just a few blocks closer to Lake Merritt, BART and other bars and restaurants. The five owners batted around possible names—Yardbird, Viridian and Viceroy—before choosing Disco Volante, which means “flying saucer” in Italian and Spanish and was the name of the villain’s boat in the James Bond movie Thunderball.

“Naming your bar/restaurant with that many people is as difficult as naming your band when you’re 20 years old,” Cook said, pausing as he sighed nostalgically.“The endless fights we had. Now I have found memories of that.”

Cook said the owners all love going to dive bars, but because they wanted to also serve food, they aimed for a slightly classier atmosphere, something more like a “supper club” where, he said, “You can get a decent meal and a nice bottle of wine and hear a show that doesn’t require ear plugs.”

The walls of Disco Volante are either dark wood or dark red, and there are a dozen or so shiny wood tables lined up in the middle of the room. Inside, there are large stained-glass windows originally from the tea room of the old Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, and stained-glass lamps hang from the ceiling. There is a long black bar that sparkles with red glitter, which is lined with black leather bar stools. There’s a piano and stage in the corner, where live music acts, often jazz groups, perform most nights. On the weekends, there is a DJ spinning records and the dinner tables clear out at night for a dance floor.

Diners can order food from the compact silver menus at the bar or at one of the tables. The dinner menu features house-made sausage, and the bistro menu touts what Cook calls “the best burger in Oakland.” Cook is eager to put the Disco Volante burger up against any other restaurant’s burger. “We need to have a burger war in Oakland,” he said.

The cocktail menu features drinks designed by the bar staff, like the “Master of Puppets” cocktail, which has Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, 360 Vanilla Vodka, green apple puree, and fresh squeezed lime juice, as well as beer on tap and long list of wine and spirits. “You can get a dollar can of PBR at Happy Hour with free fried pickles,” Cook said, “and there’s an $80 bottle of champagne as well.”

On a Thursday evening, Cook, 42, is sitting at the bar drinking a cup of coffee, while DJ Lebowitz, who performs covers of punk songs on the piano, is playing as the happy hour crowd filters in.

Cook, tall and thin with long hair in a ponytail and sideburns, is also an English professor at San Francisco City College, and an environmental consultant for construction projects. He said that ten years ago, there was no way he thought he would own a bar or restaurant. Back then, he was a PhD student in English at UC Berkeley. “I’ve read my Marx, you know what I mean?” he said. “The notion that I’d sully my hands in business, I mean, never, right? Why would I want to be a shopkeeper?”

Cook, who is from Chicago, has lived in the East Bay since coming to Cal in 1992. He got to know the other owners behind Disco Volante over the years, including by playing pinball with a few of them at the nearby Radio Bar (which is also owned by Tolle). He said it took the right idea, at the right time, from the right group of people for him to buy in. That, he said, and the idea that “if you’re going to have the full American experience, don’t you have to be a business owner?”

He’s at Disco Volante most nights now, managing the books or taking care of anything that comes up. Sometimes, a customer will come in and mention they remember the building when substantial lingerie items were on display in the windows. While Cook gave up on naming the place after a bra, he’s still curious about what the old storefront looked like. “We’ve hunted and have not been able to find a picture,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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