The Kilduff File: Let the Good Times Flow
Emil Peinert talks about the Kingfish move. It’s still a dive.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Bars have a way of defining a neighborhood. Since 1931, the Kingfish, a former bait shop turned beloved beer joint, had a lot to do with giving North Oakland’s lower Rockridge a friendly spot. The ’Fish was a place where anyone could feel the warmth of human kindness. Living not far away in 2005, Emil Peinert, a recent Boston transplant, wandered in and was smitten. A few sips in, and he was right at home with the scruffiness, baseball memorabilia, and the distinctive odor. Then it closed for licensing violations that same year, and Peinert, a financial adviser, was lost in a sea of local bar mediocrity. He tried other spots but couldn’t get the ’Fish off his mind. In 2009, he approached the landlords about reopening. They agreed, and the good times started flowing again. But in 2014, the bar was given its last rites: Condos were coming in, and the charmingly dilapidated Kingfish was out. Builders offered a space in the new building, but he knew it just wouldn’t be the same. And so in 2015 the feisty Kingfishers decided to move the scrappy little bar lock, stock, and barrel down Claremont and around the corner to new digs on Telegraph. They pulled off the unthinkable.
Paul Kilduff: When I first heard about the plan to move the Kingfish, I thought there’s no way. What was the initial response?
Emil Peinert: They thought I was crazy. Some of the regulars were considering starting a betting pool on how many feet the building would go before it fell apart. When we took it apart and realized how many studs weren’t actually connected or had rotted out at the bottom, it was kind of amazing that it was still standing and that it actually made it around the corner.
PK: It looks like an improvement, especially with the back bar. Is that the sense that you get from customers?
EP: Yeah. It’s funny, because I think everybody appreciates having the old bar but especially on nice days, everybody’s hanging outside. With the back patio, we did a very nice job, because we took the façade from one of the Victorians that was out back behind the Kingfish and then built stairs down into the patio. The old Kingfish used to have stairs going up to one of the houses right out the back door. We effectively kept some of the same feel, and by bringing the Victorian façade over, it looks older. I think most people come in there and think that the house was there before we moved. You’re squeezed in between the bar and the house, which is how it felt before. People who didn’t know, I think, just felt like it’s always been as it is right now.
PK: A lot of people advised against the move. It would have been a lot easier and cheaper to take the memorabilia down and re-create it. Why was it so important to move the actual bar and every crooked staircase?
EP: Because I got involved with the bar. I went there for a few years, and then it closed, and then I tried to go to some of the other bars in the neighborhood, and none of them felt quite right. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly. I was worried that if you took it all down and re-created it, you might come back with something feeling a little bit like a Disneyland ride where it’s like, “Oh, it’s got all the right pictures and stuff, but it feels a little created.” Whereas, if you actually move it, you know it’s going to be exactly what it was before. I guess I’m a little bit of a history nut, but I’m not in the book and date way. We went to the point of taking pictures off all the walls, so when we got them across the street, we put them back up in the same place.
PK: And you told the contractors to make sure that the doors were not hung square and that the staircase was a little bit crooked.
EP: Exactly. I think the contractor knew I was really nuts when they had taken the stuff out of the inside and there’s a post that held up one of the beams and I was like, “Where’d the post go?” He’s like, “We haven’t thrown anything out. It’s in here.” I believe that was the point where he’s like, “Oh, crap, we better keep everything.”
PK: Do you ever bartend?
EP: Yeah. My job changed, so now I have a little bit more flexibility. I probably get behind the bar about once a month. I try not to work the super busy shifts, and I don’t want to take anything away from my bartenders. I just do it to keep in touch with people and know what’s going on. It’s kind of fun for an evening or an afternoon.
PK: Every story about the Kingfish begins with, “Beloved dive bar, the Kingfish ... ” How do you feel about the “d” word?
EP: Our LLC that owns the bar is named Bait Shop Dives. We are fully in support of the dive bar. Facebook occasionally tells me to change it, and I am very anti moving it out of the dive bar category.
PK: Does it have a different connotation for people today? Is it a term of endearment?
EP: For me, dive means history. It’s been around for a while, so it doesn’t look new, and there’s goofy stuff on the walls and probably not square corners, and it’s not set up in the ideal fashion. I don’t think a dive bar needs to have dirty, nasty restrooms or wine out of a box. Some of the things that people associate with a dive—being not clean or surly service or crappy alcohol options—none of that I ascribe to.
PK: I read that there’s a long-standing tradition at the Kingfish of not discussing politics.
EP: People discuss politics. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they certainly do. We get a little bit of everything. We have blue collar, white collar, fully employed, underemployed, old, young. We get about every political and sports leaning that there could be. There are, at times, spirited conversations. The goal at the Kingfish is that everybody’s welcome. It’s making sure that you have a diverse group of bartenders and door people and drinks that appeal to wide ranges of people. Oakland is quite the diverse city, and I think the idea is anybody can come in and feel comfortable and not feel like, “Oh, this is a Rockridge bar. This is a hipster bar. This is an old-timer’s bar.” The idea is to be yes to all of that and make sure that everyone feels comfortable, not just a particular group of people.
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This report appears in the December edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.