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The Nightcap: The old and comfortable Baggy’s By the Lake

on December 9, 2011

The Nightcap is a series that features a favorite Oakland drinking establishment every Friday afternoon.

Baggy’s By the Lake, on East 18th Street and 3rd Avenue, is one of the oldest bars in Oakland. The place opened in the 1930s, soon after prohibition ended, and was known as “ Hank’s Tavern” in those days, named after the original owner.

But Hank had a gambling problem. Or so the story goes.  And he fell into debt to a bookie named Baglietto , nicknamed “Baggy,” in the 1940s.

“So to avoid getting kneecapped, he gave half his business to Baglietto,” says Mike McNew, the current owner of Baggy’s. “And it’s been Baggy’s ever since.”

McNew has a lot of similar stories about Baggy’s, a one-room neighborhood spot that is crammed between a Subway and a pho restaurant, has a neon sign out front and a full bar and beer on tap. The place draws a strong contingent of regulars and people that live nearby, and has been that way for years. McNew describes the clientele as “a bunch of regulars who keep an eye on everything and make sure everyone’s comfortable, and the bartenders go out of their way to make sure everything’s nice and the music is not too loud or anything.”

McNew, 52, has a cheerful voice and an old-style mustache that runs onto his cheeks, and on a weekday afternoon is wearing a flat cap as he sits at the bar going through the books. Christmas music is playing on the jukebox. Baggy’s is dressed up for the holidays, with an 11-foot fake-snow-flocked tree in the corner, multi-colored lights, and a couple hundred Nutcracker statues of various sizes on the mantle high above the bar. “We do something for every holiday,” McNew said. “You’ve got to give people something to look forward to.”

McNew is the fifth owner of Baggy’s, and before that was a longtime customer. He’s an Oakland native, having grown up in a Highland Hospital-area house that his grandfather built in 1906, and where his 85-year-old mother still lives and attended St. Joseph’s in Alameda. “I used to walk down here as a kid and fish in Lake Merritt,” he says.

He used to frequent Baggy’s, and the other bars in the area like Clark’s, starting when he was a teenager. There were about a half-dozen bars in the area,

The inside of Baggy’s is decorated for Christmas.

and the owners were all friends, McNew says. “All the bars had drink chips, and I remember you could use a Baggy’s drink chip over at the Parkway Lounge, or a Parkway chip at D Club,” McNew says.  “The chips were interchangeable. And at the end of the month all the owners would get together over at the Merritt Restaurant and have breakfast and they’d divvy up all the chips. And whoever had the most chips had to buy breakfast.”

Baggy’s drew an older crowd in those days, McNew says, and opened at 6 in the morning and closed at 10 at night. As he remembers it, bartenders wore white collard shirts and ties.

McNew started his own bar-hopping in the area when he was 18 and working at a nearby gas station. Bartenders never carded him. “I was coming in with a group of regulars, drinking in all these bars for a few years before I turned 21,” McNew says. When I had my 21st birthday, a lot of the bar owners were kind of mad to find out I wasn’t 21 and had been drinking all these years illegally.”

He started bartending at Baggy’s in 1988, and worked at other bars around Oakland, including the Parkway. When he was managing the bar at the Marriott Hotel, Baggy’s came up for sale, and McNew bought the place in 1997, with the idea of restoring it to its original look. The fourth owners had upset a lot of the regulars by trying to turn the place into a rocker bar and attract a younger crowd. He was horrified. “They took everything that was old out,” McNew says. “They put rock ‘n’ roll posters, neon lights, linoleum floors.  It didn’t look anything like the original Baggy’s. So when I bought it, the first thing I did was restore it to how it used to be. Put carpet back in, found a bunch of old stuff from a garbage pile ready to go to the dump like lamps and statues and things.”

McNew says he remembered that the artwork on the walls at Baggy’s, back when he was a regular, featured a bunch of oil paintings depicting early California history. The previous owners had sold those paintings, so McNew found some replicas of old west scenes that now hang from the walls. “I’m always looking for old picture frames, or something that looks old,” he says.

The crowd at Baggy’s has skewed younger in age in the years since McNew bought the place. He said he’s noticed a lot of young people live in the area now, and are attracted to the Baggy’s happy hour, which runs from 4-8 pm, when drinks are $3 — or to the $2 PBR they can buy anytime. “Everybody’s looking for a bargain, so I keep the prices low and pour them a good drink,” he says.

A core group of regulars has remained, though. Over the years, McNew has become friends with many of them, and they’ve taken outings to places like Golden Gate Fields and cruises around the bay. McNew sees them at at the Baggy’s Super Bowl party, when chili is served (Baggy’s usually doesn’t serve food but customers are welcome to bring in their own); or at the Christmas party, scheduled for December 18. “Everybody comes in at Christmas,” he says. “A lot of the old regulars, everybody from the night crowd to the day crowd, everybody kind of gels. It will be a busy day. We’ll have Christmas music and a few surprises.”

McNew says he’s happy he was able to restore the bar to how it originally looked, and has been able to maintain that for 15 years. “Everyone’s welcome,” he says. “You could bring your mother in here, and she’d feel comfortable.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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