The bright green building at 5352 College Ave. in Oakland bears its origin story right there on the building: Bill McNally founded his Irish Pub in 1933. Followed closely by Trader Vic’s and The Alley, McNally’s was the first bar in Oakland to obtain its liquor license after Prohibition ended (legend has it that Bill McNally got the license the very next day).
Historical note, with thanks to the Oakland History and Magazine rooms: McNally’s was originally called a tavern. The reason for this is spelled out in an article published March 25, 1970 in the Oakland Tribune: “The law prohibits bar and saloon signs under the theory that the advertisements will corrupt children and romanticize the days of the wild-west saloon.” The article goes on to say that “the ban on bars was enacted in 1935 in the wake of the repeal of prohibition. The public at the time associated bars and especially saloons with gambling, prostitution, underworld activity and bootlegging.” Until John T. Knox (D-Richmond) wrote a bill (AB 1502) to repeal this restriction — urged on by Don Bradley, a campaign manager for “major Democratic candidates” — drinking establishments had to call themselves taverns and cocktail lounges. According to a notice in the Tribune, Governor Ronald Reagan signed the bill, which allowed the “use of the word saloon by places licensed to sell alcoholic beverages,” in August 1970.
Even before the nomenclature was straightened out, McNally’s has always been a favorite neighborhood watering hole. Generations of patrons have passed under the green awning to enjoy a beer and a shot or a classic cocktail. I spoke with current co-owner and longtime bartender Tobias Hampton, who commented on the way this Rockridge institution has continued to bring in customers. Many come in as young adults, and as the years pass, introduce their grown kids to the place, who in turn bring in their adult kids and so on. While McNally’s used to fill up with Cal students and Bear backers (due to a now-defunct law banning the sale of liquor within two miles — later changed to one mile — of the Cal campus), the clientele these days are generally neighborhood folks, local sports fans and students from California College of the Arts just up the street.
Not much has changed at McNally’s over the years: there are the same portraits of JFK and FDR, a classic framed image of poker-playing dogs, vintage movie posters in the back room, a well-used bumper pool table, and walls full of sports memorabilia for local teams as well as the Seattle Seahawks. (Tobias, a big fan, mentioned that McNally’s has been named the best Seahawks bar in Oakland by several sources that research this kind of thing.) McNally’s has three TVs in the bar area, and the place gets pretty busy on game nights. The bar is open every day of the year, no exceptions. The fireplace still works, the jukebox is impressive and a darts tournament takes place every third Tuesday.
In addition to the ever-popular beer and shot combo, McNally’s is known for its Irish coffee. Posted on the wall is this classic description:
Cream as rich as the Irish brogue
Coffee as strong as a friendly hand
Sugar as sweet as the tongue of a rogue
And whiskey smooth as the wit of the land
In the course of researching this beloved neighborhood pub, I ran across something Washington Irving wrote: “There is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described but is immediately felt and puts the stranger at once at his ease.” That’s what it feels like to hop on a bar stool at McNally’s.
Painted on the wall above a large Irish harp, the official emblem of Ireland, is the Gaelic expression “Céad Míle Fáilte,” which translates to: A hundred thousand welcomes. Whether a newcomer or a long-time patron of McNally’s, you will feel welcome there.