Cafe Van Kleef

By Nick T.  Published Aug 26th, 2016

An art gallery for bar flies.

A few years ago, during an October rain storm, I found myself drying off on a barstool in Cafe Van Kleef. There was only one man behind the bar, but he had a presence that filled the room. As soon as I sat down he placed a steaming mug of deep, bright red liquid in front of me. “Booze soup!” he said with enthusiasm. “It’s a blend of Campbell’s tomato, some bloody Mary mix, a little hot sauce, and a bottle of vodka. You have to drink it before you can order.”

I drank the warm tomato soup and vodka mixture and it was just what a person needs on a stormy October day in Uptown Oakland.

Cafe Van Kleef's iconic greyhound.

Peter Van Kleef opened this bar in 2004 and decorated that place himself. Every wall and surface is covered in artifacts, art, and curious oddities which he mostly gathered on a 5 year trip around the world. A patron of the arts and a local legend, Peter passed away in August of 2015 at 65 years old. He once told me about his time in the music scene down in LA during the 80s. He had a story for everyone and everything. He was, by all accounts, a character.

Nowadays, the bar still has all his eccentricities decorating the place, and the patrons remember him for his humor, and kindness, and the strength of his spirit. On any given day you can walk into the Cafe Van Kleef and see a bar full of patrons tossing down Greyhounds, the signature drink of the establishment, by the gallon. On a busy night, one bartender will be doing little else aside from squeezing grapefruit juice. If Greyhounds aren’t up your alley, they still stock a full bar. Peter’s drink of choice with customers was a shot of Buffalo Trace.

A familliar scene where a couple of people might know your name.

Known to locals as Van Kleef’s, the spot has been a gathering place for all walks of life since it opened. A regular night will have you running into old friends, artists, and off duty chefs, most of them engaged in conversation, some just come to sip on something and stare at the wonders on the walls. There’s a stage in the back that used to have live music, but looking at their calendar now reveals a string of blank days. The upside is that you can get in on the weekends without having to worry about a cover at the door.If you’re a few Greyhounds deep and get a hunger pang, fear not, for just outside the door on most nights there will be a hotdog cart or another vendor across the street. If that doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, you’re in Uptown and there’s plenty to eat every direction you turn.

Some of the many paintings lining the walls.

Do yourself a favor if you’re not already a regular and stop by for a drink. Eavesdrop on some tall tales at the bar, bring some friends and make your own story. Pay your respects to Peter, a man who was as much a part of Oakland as Oakland was a part of him. The least you could do is come to check out the jackalope, or the creepy dolls, or any of the odd curios. Raise a glass. Have a good night.


All photos by © 2016 Nick T. All rights reserved.