Oakland’s Kingfish Pub & Café is an East Bay institution. For decades, it’s been a beloved neighborhood dive bar, but it began as a humble bait shop on Claremont Avenue in 1922. Located in the Temescal neighborhood, the Kingfish is a shrine to Cal sports — both past and present — and to all Bay Area teams, with paraphernalia (oars, hockey sticks and generations of ticket stubs) plastered or hung on the walls. The Fish was a sports bar before sports bars were even a thing.
A bit of history: In 1873, as part of an effort to protect University of California students from the dangers of alcohol, the state legislature enacted a law banning the sale of liquor within two miles of campus. (This restriction was changed to a “one-mile” rule in 1876.) Berkeley passed a temperance ordinance in 1899 that was repealed in 1900, but then reinstated citywide in 1906 through the end of Prohibition. As a result, the Kingfish in neighboring North Oakland became a hub for college students, in addition to the folks who lived in the then working-class area, which featured an Italian bakery, a hardware store and the original Genova Delicatessen. They are all long gone today, but the Fish abides.
More of the Kingfish history and lore, according to co-owner and Fish historian Vincent Traverso: Bill Traverse started selling bait out of a shack he’d built behind his mother’s house. That shack became the Kingfish. Local fishermen would come into Oakland on one of the many electric rail car lines that crisscrossed the East Bay, buy bait and then take the train to the Sacramento Delta, or take another rail car to Temescal or to the docks on the Bay.
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Traverse applied for a license to sell beer and wine. Then he put in some stools and started serving carry-out lunches: bologna sandwiches, crab cocktail and chowder. (At the moment, the only food on the premises are bags of snacks, an endless supply of free popcorn and, sometimes, snacks from food trucks parked outside. But the current owners are exploring the idea of recreating a soup and sandwiches menu that harkens back to this time. Someone still has a copy of the original chowder recipe.) Somewhere along the line, the bait took a back seat to the bar and the Fish transitioned into a working-class watering hole.
The bar’s one-time owner, Bobby Jones, kicked off the sports motif by bringing in his vast collection of memorabilia. The Cal sports connection is deep: Harmon Gym’s Newell Court, where the Cal Bears played basketball, was renovated in the late ‘90s; the painted floors were salvaged and put into storage. When the Kingfish relocated from 5227 Claremont Ave. to 5227 Telegraph Ave. (more about that later), the owners redid the floors and incorporated the Cal script and bear logos from the court. If you look down when you enter the patio part of the bar, you’ll see home plate from Evans Diamond. Wooden benches saved from the old Memorial Stadium also found a home at the Kingfish.
And one cannot speak about the Fish without mentioning the impressive shuffleboard table. It resides in a chalked-up hallway built specially to accommodate it. People queue up and wait for their turn to play. Serious players must consult the traditional rules posted on the Kingfish website.
With its low ceilings, and walls plastered with yellowed sports-related articles and photos, the front part of the Kingfish kind of resembles a cave, but not necessarily a man cave. With women behind the bar and part of the regular clientele, the Fish welcomes and embraces a diverse community.
Traverso says that the essential make-up of customers hasn’t really changed over the years. The old-timers mingle with new patrons, who become regulars themselves, and the cycle continues. The biggest difference in the demographic, he says, depends on the time of day and the day of the week. The crowd on Wednesday at 4 p.m. will be different from the crowd on Saturday night. It’s mostly related to age: the older folks stop by after work for a beer or two and to watch the game (any local sports team will do), and then head for home.
“You’ll see guys in their 80s sipping beers along with much younger folks, and they all enjoy hanging out with each other,” he said.
A remarkable fact about the Kingfish: In January 2015, owner Emil Peinert saved the bar from becoming another casualty of “Big Condo” by famously having a moving crew roll the whole place from its home on Claremont Avenue to a new space 35 yards away on Telegraph Avenue. Thanks to his efforts, every piece of the old shack survived the move intact. In a 2014 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Peinert explained his choice to move rather than start over: “I worry that if we attempted to re-create it, it would feel phony. The power of the Kingfish is that there is nothing phony about it.”
Cal students and grads, Bay Area sports fans, neighbors and many others who have a soft spot for this beloved neighborhood watering hole feel at home there. The fact that people really do seem to consider the Fish their “third place,” beside home and work or school, has been the reason for its longevity and success over the years.
As Traverso says, they haven’t resorted to any gimmicks to keep people coming in: no trivia night, no special events, no renting the place out for private parties. At the Kingfish, “patrons know to expect that things will be the same every day, all year long.” And that’s the reason the bait shop-turned bar has maintained its place, not just in the neighborhood, but in the hearts of everyone who comes in the door.
This story was updated with corrections and additions to Berkeley’s temperance history.