If there’s any bar that could be qualified as “essential,” it’d assuredly be the dive bar. They’re open when you need them, don’t care what you’re wearing, and are usually dark enough to make out with a stranger in and not feel guilty about it later. There’s also a good chance they have a great jukebox and a cool bartender with a tattoo of a flower or skull. Here -- in no particular order -- are Oakland’s most essential dives and the reasons why you should hit each and every one of them.
Best dive for a morning drink: Merchant’s Saloon
Jack London Square
Open since 1916 (and each weekday at 7am), this bar knows something about morning drinks -- try its bloody mary to see what I’m talking about. The joint was established to serve the sea merchants whose industrial warehouses still surround the bar, and the clientele mostly leans toward the tattooed punk variety -- although there’s always a lively mix of drinkers. Whiskey shots, spray-painted walls, loud live music, and pool are all at your thirsty little fingertips. Contrary to local myth, the spittoon circling the base of the bar is not a urinal -- so be polite and don’t please pee in it.
Best dive for recreational drinking: Montclair Golf Course
This Oakland Hills hideaway is a real sweetheart. Go deep undercover at the driving range, swinging on a $7 bucket of balls while slugging cheap drinks from 11am on. If you’re solely after booze, no problem. The bar is something to behold. It boasts wildly outdated decor, long-time regulars, dim lighting, the sense that the outside world has disappeared, and greasy pub food.
Best dive for bar snacks: The Graduate
The Graduate features a curving wood bar, standard issue Cheers lampshades, and a daily opening time of 12:30pm -- because day drinking is real drinking. The bartenders are sweet, the jukebox is rocking, and the diehard regulars talk about jail in a totally cool and not-at-all-threatening way. Best of all is the fresh, free, hot-popped, self-serve popcorn that’s salty and greasy in all the right ways. Pro tip: add some provided Sriracha.
Best dive for dirty laundry: Geo Kaye’s
Starting at 2pm, wash your dirty drawers at the laundromat across the street, then slide into the day scene at this no-nonsense drinking establishment. George Kaye opened the doors in 1934 and would be proud to know not much has changed since then, not even his cryptic neon sign spelling out only half his first name. Late nights, it gets a bit livelier, but 2-6pm on weekdays is the perfect time to stop by and mellow out.
Best dive for a first date: Cafe Van Kleef
Fact: dive bars are great for first dates. But not all dive bars make you look as cool as Van Kleef’s. This cocktail-serving museum of oddities is covered from floor to ceiling with unique and weird ephemera. Even if your small talk game is weak, you can always resort to talking about the decor for a few hours under the dim lighting. The well-loved Dutch owner, Peter Van Cleef, passed away in September of this year, so even if you’re just a loner looking for a pick-me-up, stop in and have his signature fresh-squeezed Greyhound in memoriam.
Dive with the most skulls per square inch: The Avenue
Come for the skull-encrusted fireplace, the pool table, and the surprisingly cozy metalhead lounge in back, stay for the diverse regulars, the friendly bartenders, and the shared love of drinking in a dark rocker joint. There’s a ton of seating, so bring your friends or latch on with a group and hope they accept you as one of their own. Bonus: there’s a $5 photo booth for when bad ideas start to seem like really good ones.
Best dive to makeout with a stranger: The Ruby Room
The hallmark of any great dive is the inability to adequately see all of your surroundings. The Ruby Room delivers darkness in spades. The sexy, red glow will have you eyeing what are probably (maybe) cuties all around you, and smokers rejoice -- there’s an indoor smoking section complete with seating and a pool table. Slide in early to avoid the crowds, or show up late night to bust out those interesting dance moves before last call in hopes of sparking some romance. There are also theme nights, which everyone knows are just an excuse to dress as scantily as possible under the clever guise of cosplay.
Best plain old dive: Ye Olde Hut
How can you not feel triumphant about life while nursing an on-the-rocks something or other by a stone fireplace? Trick question, you can’t. Play a game of pool. Play some Michael McDonald on the jukebox. Play “order some shots and beer, but probably not a craft cocktail so you don’t get mocked.” Oh and pingpong. Play that, too.
Best dive for sports-loving smokers: 19th Street Station
One man had a vision: create a place where booze and tobacco could mingle indoors in the great state of California. The solution? Buy a bar and be its sole attendant. That is problem solving. Sip and smoke to your heart’s content while enjoying the sports memorabilia and general badassery of owner Roy. Hours are limited -- he is only one man -- but stop in weekdays, noon to 8pm. There’s no website or official Facebook page -- that’s not Roy’s way. But there is a phone: 510.893.1919.
1. Merchant's Saloon401 2nd St, Oakland
2. Montclair Golf Enterprises2477 Monterey Blvd, Oakland
3. The Graduate6202 Claremont Ave, Oakland
4. George Kaye's4044 Broadway, Oakland
5. Cafe Van Kleef1621 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
6. The Avenue4822 Telegraph Ave, Oakland
7. Ye Olde Hut5515 College Ave, Oakland
8. 19th Street Station339 19th St, Oakland
Open since 1916, this Jack London Square bar is one of the best dive bars in Oakland. For one, it opens every weekday at 7am and knows how to make a good Bloody Mary, among other morning drinks. Merchant's Saloon was established to serve the sea merchants whose industrial warehouses still surround the bar, and the clientele mostly leans toward the tattooed punk variety, although there's always a lively mix of drinkers. Whiskey shots, spray-painted walls, loud live music, and pool keep the place buzzing until 2am.
This private golf club has a social and recreational center for their members. They also have really good food in their dining area. Come here for a great traditional brunch, if invited by a member of course.
This Oakland dive bar offers free popcorn with Sriracha and $1.50 PBRs if you’re a student (get it?). Don’t fret if that’s not your crowd, it’s not exactly next door to UC Berkeley, but it’s nice to know they care about corrupting the youth as soon as they’re legal. If that doesn’t do the trick, their Adios Motherf***ers are a staple, in all of their blue, boozy glory.
Fact: if you look up the definition of a no-frills neighborhood dive in the dictionary, there’s a picture of George Kaye’s in faded full color. The wood-paneled bar has been open since 1934, and the Kaye’s has been slow to change anything over the years. Regulars still pine for the old school CD jukebox that’s been replaced by a digital one, and discussing such minutiae is typical fodder on any given night over Jim Beam, neat and cans of PBR.
This quirky Oakland watering hole, covered from floor to ceiling with knickknacks galore, serves fresh fruit cocktails and other bespoke libations among a friendly, hip crowd. Come for the eclectic decor and strong drinks, stay for local live music (bands play most nights of the week) and a chance to hobnob with locals who've been hanging around since its heyday.
All the requisite components of a perfect neighborhood dive are present at this Telegraph Ave favorite: Dim lighting, cheapish drinks (hit up that $3 PBR on draft!), and bartenders with a welcome hint of apathy. You'll also find couches that look like they came from a nearby yard sale, where you can watch the game and heckle your pool-playing friends, only to get up to take a few turns in Big Buck Hunter.
This dive bar is an actual old hut that cranks out awesome jukebox music and has aping pong table that frequent bar goers here can't get enough of.
Smokers rejoice! 19th Street Station is a rare breed bar that lets you light up (cigarettes) inside. There’s no shortage of crazy crap to look at on the walls everything from novelty clocks, to oversized football helmets. This is a no frills neighborhood dive, just off Lake Merritt, where you can watch the game with friends, or have a solo dolo drink at the bar without anyone bothering you.