The Weeknighter: Café Van Kleef
Weekends are for amateurs. Weeknights are for pros. That's why each week Stuart Schuffman will be exploring a different San Francisco bar, giving you the lowdown on how and where to do your weeknight right. From the most creative cocktails to the best happy hours, Stuart's taking you along on his weeknight adventures into the heart of the City's nightlife. So, who wants a drink?
Last night I was sitting in Café Van Kleef with my friend Chloe, discussing Oakland’s current renaissance and sipping on one of the joint’s famous Greyhounds. The cocktail is made with fresh grapefruit juice that’s squeezed right before your eyes, and I couldn’t help but ask the bartender if he goes home each night reeking of the fruit. “You have no idea” he answered, but after spilling a little of the drink on my pants, I had a feeling I did too.
The first time I went to Café Van Kleef was three or four years ago when my friend Josh brought me. He’d told me all about the Greyhounds as well as commented that he didn’t think a more “Stuart” bar existed in Oakland. Upon walking in, I could immediately see what he meant. The thing with Café Van Kleef is that you can’t tell if it’s 5 years old or 50. The place has the vibe that it’s been lived in and loved, and all the weird shit on the walls makes it feel like it’s an East Bay version of Spec’s. And when I say “all the weird shit,” I mean there’s a lot of it. Stuff like taxidermy, a mural featuring everyone from Keith Richards to Basquiat to the Dalai Lama, vintage signs, random musical instruments, busts of naked ladies, and so much more covers nearly all the space in the bar. The clientele at Van Kleef is just as eclectic as the wall dressings; I’ve seen everything from businessmen to bikers drinking there, but mostly the crowd has an artsy feel. The fact that there’s live music nearly every night of the week also helps reinforce this.
Peter Van Kleef is the owner of this wild establishment and though I’ve yet to make his acquaintance, I look forward to it. I hear he’s just as eccentric as his bar. I have had the pleasure of meeting the Tamale Guy though. One night we shared a few rounds while he told me how he was chased out of the Mission for infringing on the Tamale Lady’s turf. Later on he tearfully explained how making and selling tamales saved him from one of the darkest periods of his life. These are the kinds of conversations that happen at Café Van Kleef, the kind where the close proximity of the person next to you leads to sharing stories of wonder and woe.
There’s a lot happening in downtown Oakland right now. Galleries and restaurants are popping up everywhere and local retail spots like Oaklandish are repping their Oaktown pride. The New York Times even recently named Oakland as one of the best cities to live in America. Everything, it seems, is changing in that part of the world. Luckily for the weirdos like me, Café Van Kleef seems to always stay the same, even if it is closer to five years old than 50.
Stuart Schuffman has been called "an Underground legend" by the SF Chronicle, "an SF cult hero" by the SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap" by Time Out New York. He is also the host for the IFC travel show Young, Broke & Beautiful. Follow him @BrokeAssStuart.