Oakland’s Gilliam-esque Cafe Van Kleef
Just a fraction of the collection of oddities at Cafe Van Kleef
Oakland is not San Francisco, and therein lies what attracts and repels many people to and from the East Bay city. San Francisco in the west, framed by delicate curls of fog, can seem like some Arcadian fantasy made flesh, an ephemeral bulwark against the stark, grimy realities of life. It’s main attractions are ones not typically found in average American cities, be they cultural, climatic or geographic. Oakland in the east is a thorn pricking the glistening bubble of S.F’s pleasant reverie, reminding us of her singularity. As one sometimes gets tired of living in a bubble, that lack of illusion can start to seem refreshing; that which at one time repulsed begins to attract.
But, anybody whose spent any amount of time in Oakland will tell you that it’s a city with a lot to offer in it’s own right, and that what’s in the offing has only gotten better in the span of the last eight or nine years. Between 2003-04 I played a weekly gig at a bar that had just opened, Café Van Kleef. It’s situated near the corner where Broadway St. and Telegraph Ave. converge. At the time, the surrounding area was little more than a ghost town after the suits went home and the street people slipped through cracks in the sidewalk. From the outside, Van Kleef was completely unassuming, and remains thus to this day. Go inside, however, and your retinas are blasted by a mind-blowing array of decorative flourishes: a wide variety of taxidermy, objets d’art, unrecognizable mutations of brass and wind instruments, medieval torture devices, random velvet paintings and countless other things clustered from the floor up to the far corners of its high ceiling. Presiding over this beautiful mess is Peter Van Kleef, son of actor Lee Van Kleef, most famous for being the heavy in a couple of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western films from the 1960’s. He can spin a salty tale off any of the thousands of curiosities crowding his establishment. Café Van Kleef, despite the overwhelming, florid visual style, is essentially a dive bar: comfortable and unpretentious, frequented by locals blowing off steam and the occasional musician oiling his hinges before a show at The Fox Theater. Especially well known is their greyhound, made with grapefruits squeezed per-order.
There a lot more options these days in downtown Oakland, which is much for the better, but Café Van Kleef will always be my first choice. It hasn’t changed a day since it opened, by my estimation. Here’s to hoping it never does.
Cafe Van Kleef,
1621 Telegraph Ave.