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Cafe Van Kleef

April 10, 2007

Yesterday, I wrote about one of my favorite oases in San Francisco, The Exit Theatre. Cafe Van Kleef in Downtown Oakland is as much of a refuge from the city streets as the Exit. Telegraph, the street on which Van Kleef's can be found, isn't as much of a ghetto as Eddy, the Exit's location. There are no prostrate drunks to clamber over and the street doesn't smell of piss. There's no one around at all in fact. At night, downtown Oakland is dead, so stepping off the cold sidewalk into the warm atmosphere of Van Kleef's is like walking into an old storybook with a psychadelic feel.

When we arrived on Saturday for an early evening drink, the place was empty. A couple of bar workers were bustling about in the back and four women in their 20s with gold high heeled shoes poking out of the bottom of their jeans, were rehearsing dance routines up and down the Cafe's narrow main walkway for that evening's performance. Old fashioned jazz music blared out of the speakers every now and again as they went through their steps.

We sat at the bar as the barkeep, Carol, made us a new kind of drink -- a blend of vodka, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and a touch of fresh mango juice -- which was delicious.
"What's it called?" I asked Carol, a smiley woman with dyed blond hair.
"I don't know. We just invented it today," said Carol, adding, "I think I'll call it the PVK." "PVK?"
"Peter Van Kleef. It's his recipe."

Peter Van Kleef isn't like most bar owners you come across today. He's portly, handsome, and grey, and has the carefree attitude of someone who's either done well in business and has officially "retired" to pursue hobbies, or who is an artist and doesn't give a damn. Every now and again he'd appear behind the bar to answer the phone.
"Cafe Van Kleef, this is Frank Sinatra Speaking..."
"Cafe Van Kleef, this is Ghandi speaking..."

At one point he started telling us about the wild amount of towering junk that covers almost every spare inch of wall and bar space in the Cafe. He spoke so fast that I hardly had a moment to take in what he was telling us. I do remember him pointing vaguely to a corner and saying something about owning one of just 11 pairs of Dorothy's red slippers from the Wizard of Oz. I couldn't see the artifact in question from where I was sitting. It was probably hidden behind an old trombone or a tarnished candelabra. One of the stuffed animal heads on another wall was apparently shot by Gary Cooper. The place was a museum before it became a bar, so it's full of amazing things.

After dinner up the street at Luka's Taproom, we wandered back to Van Kleef's for the evening's entertainment. The place was packed. A five-piece Dixieland jazz band played on the tiny stage. They were joined on occasion by the Hot Pink Feathers, the go-go girls of before, this time transformed into a frisson of pink and purple feathers and sequins and makeup and lots of exposed pink flesh. Only the gold high heels remained from before. It wasn't quite the Moulin Rouge, but together, the band and the dancers created a glorious cabaret atmosphere that was hot and sexy and gentle and camp all at the same time. We lapped it up.

Sometimes you have to get off the beaten track for a great night out. Van Kleef's is a place out of time. It feels very different to the city that surrounds it, and yet strangely also very much part of it. I can't wait to go back there for a PVK, some glitter and jazz, and a little late-night conversation with Gary Cooper's dead yak.

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