The Nightcap: Hip-hop and Belgian beers at Luka’s Taproom
on November 25, 2011
When Rick Mitchell opened Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, a Belgian-style brasserie and hip-hop club on Broadway and West Grand in the Uptown area in 2004, he was living near Lake Merritt and working as a tax attorney for an accounting firm. He hated his job. He thought Oakland needed a hip-hop nightclub—a venue where people could hear local music. And most of all, he wanted to open a place near his home, because there wasn’t much to do at night or really any other place to go.
“I felt really divorced from where I lived,” he said. “I didn’t know my neighbors, or people from around here. I wanted to do something in my own community and this place was available on the extremely cheap because this is, you know, not a hot property.”
A lot has changed in seven years. The Uptown area is now teeming with restaurants and recently opened bars, like Make Westing and Bar Three Fifty-Five. Two restaurants are now across the street: Ozumo, a Japanese restaurant, is on one corner, and fried chicken sandwich hub Bakesale Betty’s on the other.
Mitchell said he had no idea how to run a business when Luka’s opened, and feared no one would show up. But he said he could see the neighborhood’s transformation happening right away. The first night Luka’s was open, there was a line out the door. He’s now seen a similar scene at each new place that opens nearby.
The inspiration for Luka’s came from a German brasserie Mitchell had frequented near his office in San Francisco, and he had also enjoyed brasseries while visiting France and Belgium. (The name comes from Mitchell’s dog, a West Oakland stray.) But he also wanted to open a hip-hop club, and thought he could combine all these things he loved into one place. “It actually worked out,” he said. “Having that diversity of appeal of things to do has actually been one of our strengths, rather than a place that just has one concept.”
Luka’s serves 16 beers on tap, focusing on Belgian ales. Over the years, the cocktail menu has shifted from strong, sweet drinks for people who come to dance to serving cocktails with “a little more sophistication,” Mitchell said—premium vermouth in a martini, for instance. The menu features French and Belgian fare like oysters, mussels and Belgian frites, as well as bar standards like burgers.
Luka’s looks a lot like a restaurant during the day, with booth seating running along open windows across from a long bar. Around the corner from the bar is another room, darkly painted with art hanging from the walls and a few tables and bar stools. There’s a DJ booth along the back wall; inside of it, “Oakland is Proud, Oakland is Loud” is written in a graffiti scrawl. On the front of the booth, a calendar of the bar’s events is written in pink and white chalk. Mitchell said Luka’s is “Oakland’s largest hip-hop nightclub” and DJs perform seven nights a week—there’s dancing on the weekends.
Just as the area around Luka’s has drastically changed, so has the inside of the establishment since Mitchell bought the place. The building had previously housed the German restaurant Hofbrau for more than 50 years. After starting out in the late 1940s as a restaurant, the building evolved into many things, including a punk club and illegal gambling house, before closing in 2002. People still wander in, looking for the Hofbrau—mostly “hoodlums and ne’er- do-wells,” he said.
Though rent for the building was cheap and the city kicked in some money as well to help him start the business, Mitchell still had to raise money from investors, max out his credit cards and mortgage his house to raise enough capital to open Luka’s. Then there was the matter of fixing up a building that was in dire shape—the lower windows had been painted red, there was a concrete structure covering the upper windows, there were layers of aging walls and inside, the place was a mess.
“Basically any time anything broke or was a problem, they either covered it or painted it over,” Mitchell said. “We pulled back layer after layer after layer of stuff that had been building up since the 40s.”
As for the neighborhood, it wasn’t in great shape, either. Mitchell knew there were development plans for an apartment complex across West Grand, but he was skeptical they would pan out. While he was right about that—only one of the four Broadway Grand buildings that was supposed to open in the area actually did—the rest of the area has grown around Luka’s to become a foodie and nightlife destination, thanks in great part to the refurbished Fox Theater opening in 2008.
As the area transformed, Mitchell decided to double down. Four years ago, he opened a wine bar called the Punchdown across the street. And Luka’s is still going strong.
“For all I knew, I was going to open the doors and no one was going to come visit me,” he said. “That first night, we had a waitlist at 8 o’clock at night. I have no idea that happened, but I’m glad it worked out that way.”
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