It’s no secret that Oakland, the larger of the East Bay cities, is in the throes of a new culture wave. The city has become a mecca for burgeoning new restaurants and bars and boasts an incredibly distinct food scene. While gentrification is an issue people are actively wrestling with, the soul of Oakland seems to have come this far unscathed. The locals exude fierce pride in their big city with small-town vibes, where diversity, inclusivity, and a sense of history are revered.
Recently, Oakland’s first ever Cocktail Week showcased its growing bar culture and drew guests from around the Bay Area. Although you’ll find plenty of listicles online highlighting where to eat or drink in Oakland, this week’s action was centered on the smaller neighborhood bars — where locals gathered, warmly chatting with friends and newcomers alike over a cocktail. To illustrate their community connectedness, most storefronts displayed “Oakland Stands United Against Hate” posters around town.
I arrived in Oakland in style with JetSuiteX, which provided a super Instagram-worthy flight from Burbank. If you’re going off to a new city to drink for a week, this is a pretty solid way to do it — it was great not having to deal with the hassle of lines and the TSA. Once we were in the air, Cocktail Week started early with a complimentary drink that went down as quickly as the hour-long flight. After landing and checking into my hotel, I left for the first event: Town Spirit: A Tribute to Oakland’s Enduring Bar Culture.
The Town Spirit event took place at the Oakland Museum, where guests took their seats to watch a short documentary followed by a reception with light food and cocktails. The film captured the essence of Oakland, which, despite significant gentrification and the skyrocketing cost of living, has managed to preserve its cultural identity and maintain its old-school drinking institutions. After viewing the film, I knew I had to ditch my plans to explore the new-age cocktail scene and instead discover the best dives Oakland’s community-driven neighborhoods had on offer. Here are several affordable, dark, iconic watering holes — the kind where you feel welcome as soon as you walk in the door.
CAFE VAN KLEEF
Entering Café Van Kleef almost feels like walking into a tchotchke museum, where a game of “I spy with my little eye” would keep you entertained for hours. It’s dark, resembling your typical dive, but filled with timeless treasures including paintings and random relics, giving the place tons of character.
Besides being around for over 15 years, Café Van Kleef is known for its Greyhounds with freshly pressed grapefruit juice that compliments the generous vodka pour, with a cartoon-sized grapefruit slice as the garnish.