It feels a little like a speakeasy, with its nod to that era’s décor, but there’s nothing old-fashioned about Bar 355, located in Oakland’s Uptown. Co-owner Travis Dutton (behind the bar when we visited), says the bar, in its seventh year, draws good crowds from neighboring workers at happy hour, with another shift coming in later, when the after-work folks have gone home.
The bar has been a bar since the ’40s, we learned from Dutton. In fact, it used to be a jazz club. Some of the original features are still in operation, including the L-shaped wooden bar that runs almost the length of the intimate room. In addition to the original long wooden bar, there is seating at banquettes in the very front, and behind the bar before you get to the dance floor. The wall opposite the bar features patterned wallpaper and large mirrors above a shelf convenient for setting drinks on, with tall chairs lined up for seating. A late-night DJ spins albums on the two turntables located near the small dance floor in the back, underneath the classic mirror ball.
Dutton, who grew up in Berkeley, remembered how thing used to be in downtown Oakland or Uptown, depending on where you stand: Pretty quiet after hours, with not much going on in terms of places to go and things to do. All that has changed in recent years, with new bars and restaurants and entertainment options to choose from in the evenings. When we asked him about the popularity of the bar, Dutton said he thinks people like Bar 355 for two excellent reasons: Good drinks at a reasonable price. The cocktail specials vary with the season, which is a good incentive to return as time goes by. Also, the civic-minded may be encouraged to participate in some of the fundraising events, with 50% of specialty cocktail menu sales donated to worthy causes.
Before surveying the menu, we asked about crowd favorites and recommendations. The day had been hot, and the suggestion of the popular Gin and Tonic ($8) hit the right note. We were curious about the pink tint of the drink, and learned that it had to do with the origin of tonic itself. The house-made tonic, the result of Dutton’s due diligence for nine months, reflects the distinctive flavor profile he was seeking. The drink lived up to its promise of a cool, refreshing harbinger of days to come, with hints of botanicals that lent it a unique flavor. The tonic added so much more than we’d expected, pleasing to both the eye and the palate.
Speaking of tonic, it’s impossible to avoid mentioning malaria in this context, but we’ll keep it brief. Legend has it that the accidental discovery of the healing powers of quinine occurred when a sufferer drank from a pool of water contaminated by a cinchona tree. Found in the Peruvian Andes, today the cinchona tree’s bark is best known as the source of the anti-malarial drug quinine and is now cultivated in tropical areas, including regions of Africa. The bark, which is reddish-pink, can be dried and then used in combination with a variety of botanicals to make tonic (which contains far less quinine than it did historically, when British officials in India began mixing their medicinal tonic with gin). And this explains the attractive, if unexpected, pinkness of our cocktail, made with Broker’s London Dry gin, and garnished with a slice of cucumber.
Our companion ordered the enticingly named Me at the Zoo ($9), made with gin, Carpano Bianco vermouth, Curaçao, grenadine and orange bitters, garnished with a lemon twist. It was another refreshing choice on a warm day. Although tempted to try the 19th Street Manhattan ($9), made with Buffalo Trace 355 barrel bourbon, Italian vermouth bitters and brandied cherry, we decided to return for that one soon.
But if any cocktail is associated with the promise of summer, it would be the classic G&T. The clink of ice, baseball games, layers against the fog… these are the markers of summer in the Bay Area. Celebrate the season of your choice at Bar 355. You won’t be disappointed.
The crowd: Groups and couples relaxing after work, followed by Uptown locals and others
The drink: House favorite Gin and Tonic
The one to try next time: 19th Street Manhattan or whatever looks good on the summer specials menu
Good to know: The bar is located just a short walk from the 19th Street BART station, convenient for those who work in Uptown, or those who want to meet up with friends on the way home
Happy hour: 4 to 8 p.m., Monday to Friday
When to go: Happy hour, after work, after dinner or a show