After Hours with Blake Cole
[At the start of COVID], we were in a very specific situation, because we did not get to officially open before the pandemic. We got final inspection the day that shelter in place hit. Before, we had been delayed because of East Bay Mud, so as restaurant openings [often] go, we had a series of bad luck. Truly everything is just out of your control and nothing can be done – you just have to sit and wait. The entire concept of the bar changed because of COVID. There’s good and bad with that. Because we never really opened, people didn’t have an expectation of what we were or who we were, so we had an easier time adapting the concept because we never got to execute our original one.
The number one easy, go-to spot I think for most of us in Oakland was Starline, which is one of the biggest casualties of COVID, at least in the East Bay. Starline was the kind of place that you could always rely on. Even if you were going out alone, you were going to run into someone maybe. It was a staple go-to in the East Bay. As far as the city goes, El Rio was for sure a spot of mine, The Stud was one we’d go to a lot for casual beers and hangs. There are lots of little places I miss all the time. I totally miss Lone Palm, which I think is one of the best dive bars in San Francisco. But it’s not even a dive. Oh man. There are so many spots.
The number one thing that brings me back to a place, and something that we always want for Friends and Family to emulate, is really a sense of community and belonging and safety, which I think ultimately is what all neighborhood bars want to be. Or the good ones do. The feeling of connectedness and belonging is definitely the most attractive quality in those spots. And that comes down to the staff, and the kind of folks they serve and cater to. That’s a big one. Then there are those places that just feel really special to be at – they aesthetically feel really special. I’m always a sucker for classic, old school places. My favorite places to go eat in the city were Tadich or Swan Oyster Depot; places that have a lot of history to them. They feel very grounded. I’ve always kind of loved that sentimental feeling.
The number one thing that brings me back to a place... is really a sense of community and belonging and safety.
It’s funny because, even before COVID, I’ve never been one to make cocktails at home. I'm definitely a bottle of wine and beer person at home, because I make cocktails at work all day long. But you know, for the cocktail program at the bar which I collaborated on with our bar partner, Kim, previously from Trick Dog, something that she and I have always agreed upon is I really love simplicity and takes on classics – cleaner flavors, not trying to do anything too over the top. So for me, when it comes to having cocktails for myself, a mezcal margarita or a gin gimlet are my go-tos. For our bar program this summer, we made a drink with AMASS Gin that was our take on a white negroni. I called it “San Michelle My Belle,” which was inspired by the tiny little hotel I stayed at in Italy a few years ago, which was called the San Michele. It just felt like exactly what I would drink if I were there again, and I think I was mentally trying to go back there. We infused the AMASS Gin with melon, and then there was Cocchi Americano and Dolin dry vermouth with a grapefruit peel. That was for sure a cocktail that made you sit down and sip it and enjoy it, and just breathe in a different kind of memory than what you are currently experiencing.
Our initial intention with the cocktail program was to have a two-part menu. One was a family menu, and one was a friends menu. So all of the cocktails were meant to be inspired by our friends and our family and the people in our lives. All of the family cocktails we have on there are really classic cocktails, but done in the style of how that family member enjoyed them. So, we have the Grandma Standard on our menu, which is a Plymouth gin martini with a twist and a side glass of ice, which is exactly how my grandma [took hers]. It was the only martini she would drink. So that’s our house martini. Our friends menu we use as an opportunity to be a little more creative. There was always a component of each cocktail that was inspired by a person in our life. So it’s either our friend particularly loved a type of cocktail, or I traveled to a place with a friend and it’s a sense memory from that place with them, but it’s always rooted in somebody that we know.
The whole motivation for me to open a bar to begin with was just, I think that eating out and sharing a drink with somebody is the most human experience that we can share. Everything that I planned in terms of the buildout of the bar led to that. We wanted the bar to be curved in a certain way so every single person sitting there could see everybody. We wanted the lighting to be right, we wanted it to feel like this is catering to you and people meeting in a way that feels organic and cohesive. Adapting that to this has been really, really weird. I think ultimately it just comes down to kindness and attention to detail and making every little opportunity for a human connection possible. People just order on their phones; the servers don’t even take orders from guests. It’s definitely a much more isolated experience, but we try to bring a little personality and playfulness to everything, whether it’s a garnish or plating or a little note that we write; something so it feels like you’re getting a sense of us, and that you’re worth that little acknowledgement, you know?
Honestly, social media is the number one reason we’re in business, because we’ve been able to connect with a customer base that we literally never got to meet in person. Being able to utilize that has for sure given us a sense of community and a loyalty with people by just having direct communication with them online.
I just want people to sweat and dance and be sloppy. I can’t wait for people to be funnily sloppy again, which is really hilarious because that’s the most annoying thing for most bartenders, but I just want people to goof around and be free and let their inhibitions down a little bit. That seems like it might never happen again. But for sure dancing, and for sure people hugging, and truly meeting somebody at a bar; not knowing them and connections being formed. I’m very much looking forward to being a spectator to all that.
I just want people to sweat and dance and be sloppy.
I have positive and negative feelings. Before the pandemic, it’s always been in the back of my mind to one day be able to provide healthcare to all of our staff and figure out a way to make that happen. I always had an intention of adding a surcharge to put that cost on the guest to help pay for that healthcare, because the reality is as a small business, and especially a restaurant, we would be out of business in a month if we gave everybody healthcare. It’s just impossible, it’s so expensive. So when COVID first started and we were opening up a little bit and people started to go out for the very first time, you really got a sense that people understood the privilege of going out and the responsibility of it, and how much work it takes and how much it costs. People were showing that they were willing to pay for it, and pay a little more for that experience. I’m excited about the prospect of people having a deeper and better understanding of what a privilege it is to go out and what actually is involved in making your meal or making your drink, and hopefully being able to put your money where your mouth is and help pay for healthcare for employees. That’s the number one thought. I’m a little apprehensive and negative about it, because I can already see as people get used to going back out, the tips start going down more and they’re a little more comfortable and they’re adjusting to complaining about things again. So we’ll see. But I really, really hope that when we do open up again, like full scale, that you have the opportunity to implement things like a healthcare surcharge without extreme pushback from people.
People say all the time, “Oh, you guys look like you’re crushing it” because of the way we put things out on social media, but that’s just not the truth. Everybody is still struggling major. The only thing that we know is that we know nothing and nothing is promised. Each day is definitely a battle to get through. Just coming and supporting is literally life or death for restaurants and for businesses right now. We're definitely not out of the woods by any means. When one place looks like it’s thriving and another place looks like it’s about to shut down, it doesn’t mean that somebody did it wrong or people didn’t adapt right. Those things have become irrelevant very quickly. I’m happy for each day that we’re open and grateful I get to do this at all.
Photos by Lindsay Shea