January 28, 2016

The Kingfish Pub & Cafe in Oakland, California

The facade of the Kingfish Pub and Cafe in Oakland, California

photo by: Dave Schumaker/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

When a condo development threatened the future of Oakland, California’s Kingfish Pub & Cafe, a beloved local dive bar, its owners devised a plan: They loaded the small, wood-sided structure onto a trailer and hauled it across the street.

It’s a cunning tale of survival for a bar that’s been serving cheap beer to Oakland residents since Prohibition was repealed in 1933. But the building’s story begins a few years earlier. It was built, it’s believed, circa 1931 by avid bass fisherman William Traverse who sold bait, fishing accessories, and portable lunches to his customers. After the repeal of Prohibition, he applied for a license to sell beer and dubbed his new venture the Kingfish.

The bar was popular among the young men who worked at a nearby creamery, but it was also a favorite gathering place for families who would sit at the round tables to play games and enjoy the warmth from the pot-bellied stove.

Throughout the next several decades, the Kingfish expanded in size and changed owners a number of times. In the 1940s, Traverse began leasing his business to an Oakland police officer named Paul “Slim” Stevenson, who added a room for a shuffleboard table. And in 1959, Stevenson passed the torch to his friend Bobby Jones, a minor league baseball player. Jones added much of the sports memorabilia that you see on the walls today. After he died in 1980, the bar changed hands among a number of regular customers.

In the early 2000s, the property was sold to developers who made plans for a mixed-use development on the site. The Kingfish hung on awhile longer as the project was delayed, but in 2008 it was closed for licensing violations. The following year, Emil Peinert, who began frequenting the bar when he moved to the Bay Area in 2005, approached the Kingfish’s landlords about taking over. Its doors reopened in August 2009.

But the site’s redevelopment eventually moved forward, and by 2014, the Kingfish was targeted for removal. Peinert and his business partners were offered space for the establishment in the first floor of the new development, but they declined. Instead, they opted to keep the Kingfish intact and move the building to a new location 35 yards away on Telegraph Avenue.

“I think the feeling of the Kingfish comes from its low ceiling and funky corners, and if we moved to a new building, I was worried that would be lost,” Peinert says. “I didn’t want a replica of the original. I wanted the original.”

The Kingfish Pub and Cafe

photo by: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

The Kingfish Pub & Cafe, as seen before its recent move.

The interior of the Kingfish Pub and Cafe

photo by: M./Flickr?CC BY NC 2.0

Inside the Kingfish.

The Kingfish Pub and Cafe

photo by: Thomas Hawk/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

In one day, his crew moved the bar in three pieces and reassembled it on its new lot. It reopened again on May 15, 2015.

It’s the same old Kingfish, save for its new address and new back patio area. The same memorabilia hangs from the walls. You can still play shuffleboard on the table that’s been there for decades. You can still choose tunes on the digital jukebox.

“The ceiling is maybe a half inch higher than it was before,” Peinert says. “But people walk in, and it feels the same.”

Here's what you need to know before you go:

Location: 5239 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, CA 94609

Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 3 p.m.-midnight; Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday, noon-2 a.m.; Sunday, noon-midnight.

You’re Having: The Estrella Especial: Tecate and tequila. The popcorn is on the house.

Best Yelp Review: "Dive bar, how I love thee. Let me count the ways that I do: 1) They picked up the bar and placed it across the street intact. This legendary bar is still legendary. 2) Free delicious and fresh popcorn. 3) The Cal Berkeley basketball court floor. 4) 2 free shuffleboard tables. One inside and one outside. Lines are long, but it's shuffleboard. 5) Ample outdoor seating with an outdoor bar. This closes a bit earlier than the bar itself. 6) Free popcorn. 7) Really friendly patrons and staff. I made friends, y'all. We hugged it out. 8) Free popcorn."

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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