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Christmas at the Kingfish

December 22, 2016
by Pat Joseph

Like most businesses this time of year, the Kingfish Pub in North Oakland is decked out for the Holidays, strung with lights and garlanded with pine boughs. There’s a neon sign in the window advertising Anchor Steam Christmas Ale and a wreath hangs in the middle of the marquee that juts out from the low-slung, conifer-green facade and sags like the bow of a foundering ship. It almost looks as if the whole place might sink beneath the pavement. But while many another watering hole has sunk and vanished over the years, the Kingfish abides.

And, like Martini’s in the old holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the place is open on Christmas. Not just Christmas Eve either, but Christmas Day as well, 3 p.m. to midnight. Lost souls and journeyman angels are welcome, plus anyone else 21 and over.

The front bar at the Kingfish Pub / Our Oakland
The front bar at the Kingfish Pub / Our Oakland

Don’t go looking for it where it used to be, however. A couple years back, fleeing development, the whole rickety structure was uprooted from its original spot on Claremont Avenue, put on a trailer and hauled 120 feet to its current location at 5227 Telegraph. It must have been like carrying a house of cards on a cocktail tray across a crowded room, but there it stands—or squats—fully intact, right next door to the old Temescal branch of the Oakland Public Library and directly underneath a large billboard currently bearing the image of Cal’s most famous dropout, posed in nothing but his skivvies. “Vichy Springs Resort,” it reads. “Jack London’s Favorite Hot Spot.”

The author of The Sea-Wolf and John Barleycorn was already six years in the grave when the Kingfish first opened in 1922, not as a bar (it was Prohibition at the time) but as a bait shack—or maybe a bait shack with barstools. Back then the Sacramento-Northern carried striped bass fishermen through Temescal on their way to the Delta and Kingfish owner, William J. Traverse, sold sardines to the anglers out of a shed he erected in his mother’s orchard. It wasn’t until 1933, when the national drink stoppage ended, that it officially became a drinking establishment, serving up steam beer in jelly jars.

Safely outside the old mile-perimeter dry zone around campus, the place has been a popular spot with Cal students and alumni ever since.

There have been other loyal clientele across the years, of course, from the crew at the old Foremost Dairies to the orderlies and staff at nearby Children’s Hospital. More than anyone, though, it’s been the Cal fans who have kept the taps running. And how. In 1958, the year the Bears last went to the Rose Bowl, the then-owners claimed to have gone through a whopping 866 kegs of beer. Holy mackerel!

That expression, by the by, was made popular by the vaudeville character, George “the Kingfish” Stevens from the popular radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy, which is where the bar got its name. To fishermen, kingfish is another name for mackerel, which are notably absent from local waters.

The bait shack beginnings help explain the bar’s dilapidated appearance—a look the current owners have worked hard to preserve. As with Children’s Fairyland, the policy seems to be “no straight lines.” Mike Flynn, a Cal alum (‘75) and longtime patron who owns a weather stripping business, recalled, “Emil asked me to reinstall the old doors, but he insisted I hang ‘em crooked, like they always were. And I think I did a pretty good job, too!”

Emil is Emil Peinert, one of the current co-owners (there are six, all told), a 35-year-old financial planner whom most regulars credit with keeping the Kingfish not only financially afloat, but also spiritually whole. A native of Wareham, Massachusetts, Peinert first came to the Bay Area with a girlfriend who was doing graduate work at Cal. He was immediately drawn to the Kingfish.

“There’s more Christian love in the Kingfish on a Friday evening than in any church on Sunday.”

“I tried some of the other bars in the neighborhood, but none had the same feel,” Peinert said during a recent tour of the premises. “The Kingfish was the kind of place where, if you hung out for an hour, you felt like you’d been a regular forever. … It was the kind of place you’d bring kids if you could.”

Not so long ago, in fact, you could. John Hughes is a former pitcher for the Golden Bears (‘74, ‘75), who went on to coach at Cal and now works as a scout for the Florida Marlins. He remembers that “people used to bring their babies in bassinets, set ‘em right on the table, and no one thought twice about it.” It was a dive, sure, but a family-friendly one. “I’ve never seen a fight in here,” Hughes added. “Never even heard of one.”

Another regular, John Cullom, told me, “There’s more Christian love in the Kingfish on a Friday evening than in any church on Sunday.”

It probably helps that no one talks politics at the Fish, as it’s often called. “We just don’t do it,” said Bill Vaughn, who owned the place for what he describes as “a few years” (in reality, 1981 to 1994). The only politician he can remember ever stepping foot in the place was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, and he had bad manners. When the former presidential candidate was offered a Kingfish t-shirt as a keepsake, Goldwater wiped his mouth with it.

It’s primarily a jock bar, and pictures of old Cal sports heroes hang everywhere on the walls which are covered, as is the ceiling, in chalk graffiti and signs like the one that says, “Beer. So much more than a breakfast drink.” Here and there are also posted gently imploring appeals to good behavior. Over the urinal trough in the men’s room, for example. “For the love of the Kingfish, keep tobacco products out of the plumbing.” Another reminds patrons that while dogs are usually welcome, busy nights are an exception.

The one political sentiment in the place is decidedly non-partisan, a bumper sticker that reads: Giant Meteor 2016. Just End It Already.

Emil Peinert at the Kingfish

Emil Peinert at the Kingfish / Pat Joseph

The Kingfish has never really been a pickup joint, for the simple fact that there’s never been enough women in the place to make it so. That said, Mike Flynn met his wife here more than 20 years ago. As he tells it, “There was a guy named Rocco who’d had a few too many and he was trying to ask her out. She didn’t have any interest in him, but she turned to me and said, ‘I’d go out with you.’ I was like this,” he said, as he brought his pint tremblingly to his lips.

Flynn pointed to the popcorn machine near the door. “There used to be an old phone booth there and I can tell you more than one relationship started and ended in that booth.”

The free popcorn is it for food at the Fish most days. The exception is Friday nights, when a food truck pulls up next to the library. And there are hot dogs on Cal games.

In the old days the place was known for its chowder. Bartender Trebor Allen remembers coming in for lunch with his grandmother as a kid. A big man of few words with a round, whiskered face, Trebor can usually be found sitting under the light well at one end of the bar, pecking at his iPad or working the crossword until his services are needed. That usually amounts to pulling pints or fetching a cold one from the ancient green icebox. Shots are poured and drinks do get mixed, but the Fish is still mostly a beer joint.

Asked about the Holiday traditions, manager Kelly King jerked a thumb in Trebor’s direction. “He brings in a turkey on Thanksgiving with all the trimmings and lays it out so folks can help themselves.” This year a couple homeless guys caught a whiff of the bird and were invited in for a warm meal. “It’s nice, but it’s not really something we advertise. We just do it.”

On Christmas, the clientele tends to be a mix of what Flynn calls “strays”—folks with no family nearby and no place in particular to be—and kids who grew up locally and are back from college.

“Emil went above and beyond what a sane man would do to keep this place what it was” one patron told me. Another waxed poetic—poetic by dive bar standards, anyway. Sounding like a slightly sozzled Pauline Kael, he said, “It’s just a lovely, lovely sequel.”

“They come after they’ve done the family thing.” Kelly King said. “It’s a chance for them to catch up with their old high school friends in a place they remember.”

Were it not for Peinert, the place they remember might be just that: a memory. It nearly fell to the wrecking ball back in 2008, but development plans were shelved in the economic downturn. While its fate was in limbo, Peinert approached the landlords about getting a lease. What do you know about running a bar? they asked him. Nothing, he said. They shook hands on a month-to-month arrangement anyway and for a couple years the place limped along until a new developer bought the land. He was given ten months to vacate.

That’s when Peinert looked across Telegraph to the old boarded-up place between the library and the housing project. The spot was formerly home to an Ethiopian restaurant and, before that, to Rip Wilson’s Soul Brothers Kitchen. Convinced he’d found his solution, Peinert and his partners (Baitshop Dives, LLC) bought the Kingfish itself for $10, then plunked down eight grand in attorney’s fees, another forty grand or so to Roger’s House Moving, etc., etc.

More than one person told him he was crazy.

“On any given night,” Flynn recalls, “there were four or five contractors at the bar advising him against it.”

The Kingfish at night / Pat Joseph
The Kingfish at night / Pat Joseph

Peinert remembers one contractor telling him, ‘Look, just knock it down. No one’s gonna care about the studs in the walls. It’s cheaper just to rebuild it.’ But it wouldn’t have been the same.”

In truth, the Kingfish is not the same; to most minds, it’s better, what with the aforementioned bathroom upgrade and the big new patio out back boasting its own large bar and shuffleboard. For the back office, Peinert even brought in the facade of a Victorian that was also slated for tear-down in the same development project. In keeping with the ban on right angles, he had the stairs installed ever so slightly askew.

The effort wasn’t lost on the regulars. “Emil went above and beyond what a sane man would do to keep this place what it was” one patron told me. Another waxed poetic—poetic by dive bar standards, anyway. Sounding like a slightly sozzled Pauline Kael, he said, “It’s just a lovely, lovely sequel.”

“I never thought I’d use the word nice in relation to the Kingfish, but it really is now,” said Mike Flynn. “And it’s like two bars in one. On a sunny day out back you’d think you were in San Diego.”

You’d never make that mistake up front, where even on sunny days it’s as gloomy as a Seattle underpass in November. But then, that too is part of its abiding charm, and the funereal light, not to mention the bar’s proximity to Mountain View Cemetery, makes it a popular spot for wakes.

“We’ve said goodbye to some good friends,” Flynn said with a sigh as he drained his pint and prepared to head home last Friday evening. As he pushed his way through the crooked front doors and out into the cold, someone else was on their way in. They bid him a Merry Christmas.

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