Oakland's Most Experiential Bar Crawl
Three new entrants to the Oakland bar scene set themselves apart by offering immersive experiences that even the most reluctant drinkers can enjoy.
Acclaimed local authors curate the selection of books for sale at North Light.
Photo by Savage Bureau
While new bars continue to crop up around the East Bay, it takes something special to coax me out of my home and into the public eye. Luckily, three new bars in Oakland offer enough idiosyncratic appeal to tempt this vampire out of her coffin and into the land of the living (and drinking). While I could have spent an evening at any one of these watering holes, what would be the fun in that?
I decided the best way to reintroduce myself to the wonders of Oakland’s ever-expanding nightlife scene was to do an old-fashioned bar crawl. So if you are interested in exploring this sip-and-stay trifecta, read on and let me be your guide.
Start in Temescal. Why? Books and booze. North Light is a well-curated bookstore and record shop that serves as a café by day and a chill neighborhood bar by night, making it the perfect place to crack into the latest page-turner without drawing judgmental looks from nearby drunks. You’ll feel cultured as you nod admiringly at the bookshelf populated with works from local authors, acclaimed novels, and hipster-approved tomes whose verses have inspired more than a few forearm tattoos. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the entrance result in a light-filled space best enjoyed during the day—also a prime time to score the increasingly popular Last Mistake cocktail, made with mezcal, aloe, Aperol, ginger, lemon, and soda.
The turquoise tile–backed bar brings in an eclectic mix. On my visit, I saw a photogenic couple pointedly ignoring each other for their phones, girlfriends reminiscing over the previous night’s misadventures, and several octogenarians congratulating one another on figuring out how to navigate their grandkids’ group chats. Which is to say: You’d be hard-pressed to feel out of place here. If you want to mingle, the outdoor patio attracts gregarious droves when the weather is warm. I felt equally welcome shunning the sun (and crowds) and reading The Shining with a glass of prosecco in hand while tunes from the likes of Prince and Spoon rang out from a pair of record players, which are manned by the bartenders when they’re not slinging drinks. northlight.bar.
Next, hop in an Uber and head to Uptown Oakland to discover Bar Shiru, the East Bay’s answer to the sound-obsessed “hi-fi” bars that are all the rage in Japan. Whereas North Light seems primed for a “Sunday funday” crowd, Bar Shiru thrives at night. When I made my way through the well-dressed crowd, a reverent hush blanketed the room, likely thanks to the jazz record reverberating through the space.
If you’ve always wanted to spend an evening exploring—or pretending to understand—edgy, innovative music, this may be your sweet spot. Acoustics are paramount and conversations are secondary. Records play in their entirety through the analog sound system in the stylish space. Large or boisterous groups are actively discouraged, if not via subtle cues from the bartender, then through a refusal to let them overtake the bar (or, on some nights, even enter the bar). Much like the vibe, the menu is tempered, with cocktail choices split into three categories (lo-fi, hi-fi, and no-fi), plus a selection of sake, wine, and beer. barshiru.com.
After leaving the sound bubble, take a confident stumble up Telegraph Avenue to Emporium, the East Bay spin-off of San Francisco’s arcade game–focused bar. Housed in the former Rudy’s Can’t Fail space adjacent to the Fox Theater, this new psychedelic spot serves as an ideal preshow hangout for no-frills drinks and a frantic yet cathartic slamming of pinball flippers.
Emporium isn’t the most extensive arcade bar you’ll find. While there’s plenty of pinball and Skee-Ball, the lack of Big Buck Hunter is an egregious oversight. But where Emporium taketh away, it also giveth, with the inclusion of the game Killer Queen. If your poor Skee-Ball performance has you seeking solace in a pint (the bar features multiple East Bay–crafted brews on draft), find the nearest group, aggressively volunteer a batch of tokens, and double-down on Killer Queen with your newfound friends.
Aptly, the gameplay for Killer Queen sounds like a drunken fever dream, involving a queen attempting to evade being killed, snails to jump on, and little bears that transform into warriors when they put berries into a gate—which makes it strangely suited to the intoxicated mind. The details aren’t important; what matters is that up to 10 people, divided into two teams, can play the game together. And that’s the beauty of Emporium: It’s a place that embraces you at your fuzziest, most overtly sociable self—the perfect last stop for your crawl. emporiumsf.com.