Almost anything goes at Merchant’s Saloon, Oakland’s second-oldest bar. Just don’t waltz in and ask for the house specialty, like I did earlier this month.
“I’ll get you a Tough Guy,” a waitress in a shark mask told me. She returned to my outdoor table with something sweet and sickly, a Cosmo-type concoction in a little plastic shot glass.
It was a fitting rebuke to my faux pas. At this rough-and-tumble joint, which owner John Jenkins calls a bit of a “punk-rock, dive-bar paradise,” there is no cocktail program mingling seasonal ingredients with arcane, artisanal liqueurs. Leave that to the other places in this rapidly gentrifying city.
The day I visited Merchant’s was chaotic and surreal, with smoke from nearby wildfires clouding the Oakland air and breaking news that President Trump had been hospitalized for Covid-19. But Merchant’s is the sort of place you might go to toast the end of the world.
Over the years, former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown has raised a glass here, as have Deep Purple front man Jon Lord, Oakland punter Shane Lechler and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (“Coors Lite, doesn’t tip,” Owner John Jenkins says).
It’s been serving tough guys since 1916. Before women could legally enter a saloon, its clientele consisted chiefly of longshoremen and sailors, cops and gangsters, musicians and drug dealers. It’s also one of the few bars in Oakland where those homeless are often made welcome.
When the new bridge spanning part of the San Francisco Bay went up in 2013, many of its workers adopted Merchant’s as their own. Today, a photo of that bridge-in-progress occupies a place of honor opposite the long bar, which has a curious trough in front of it. Local rumor has it that patrons used to relieve themselves in it, but Jenkins says it was actually originally installed to catch sludge from chewing tobacco. He’s proud it’s one of the only such troughs in a California bar.
Over the years, former California governor and Oakland mayor Jerry Brown has raised a glass here, as have Deep Purple front man Jon Lord, Oakland punter Shane Lechler and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich (“Coors Lite, doesn’t tip,” Jenkins says).
Occupying the corner of a warehouse near Oakland’s waterfront, Merchant’s was a speakeasy during Prohibition and served a much-praised Italian-inspired lunch in the 1950s and ’60s. “This was shocking to me, I would never eat in here,” Jenkins says of the bar’s culinary legacy in Town Spirit, a 2018 Sean Wells documentary about Oakland’s dive bars. (“Town” is a local nickname for Oakland.)
A gaming company illustrator and former rock drummer, Jenkins has had to scramble to ensure Merchant’s survives Covid. He launched a GoFundMe which has generated more than $9,000 to date, and started to sell pantry items, a welcome addition to this relatively grocery-free neighborhood. “There’s a wholesaler in the warehouse whose vegetables we’re selling,” he explains.
It soon became clear, however, that neither of these would be enough to take Merchant’s through the pandemic, so Jenkins has become a whiz at navigating bureaucracy.
In mid-March, he applied for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the federal Small Business Administration and then, at the end of the month, to the Paycheck Protection Program. “They tapped out pretty quickly, so I was glad we got it in,” he says.
In late spring, California’s Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control announced it would allow bars that serve food to reopen their patios. So, Jenkins arranged with a chef friend at the Oakland restaurant Italian Colors to bring in some meatballs, among other items. He reopened for outdoor service in August. “Funny how things come in circles, even, just so happened, Italian food again,” Jenkins says.
Throughout the crisis, he’s worked to meet the County of Alameda’s health inspectors’ requirements and has gone back and forth with the City of Oakland’s Flex Streets program that, among other things, arranges for food trucks to park near bars serving outdoor drinks.
He also bumped up the pricing of the bar’s perennially popular merchandise in its online store, which has Merchant’s hoodies, baby onesies and thongs, most with a skull and crossbones over the bar’s motto, “Poisoning Oakland since 1916.” All proceeds go to his staff.
Through these various measures, he’s managed to keep six of his seven full-timers employed, albeit on reduced wages, with nothing in tips for the three months the bar was shuttered, and now less. “I met with them all early on and said, ‘Let me know what you need. We’ll get through this.’”
Berkeley contractor Travis Wirt is a Merchant’s regular and helped renovate the bar shortly after Jenkins took it over in 2006. During Covid, many of his other restaurants and bar clients have put construction projects on hold and, he says he’s had a tough go of it. “It meant a lot when Merchant’s reopened,” he says.
When asked about good nights here, Wirt cues his drinking buddy Tim McGinty. “He’s the story-teller.”
Irish by birth, McGinty is ex-military, a former mixed martial arts fighter and, for a time, a Merchant’s bartender. A few years ago, as an April Fool’s joke, Jenkins took out an ad indicating he was selling Merchant’s to McGinty, who planned to give it the absurd name, McGinty’s Roadside Roadhouse.
McGinty remembers an old sailor coming in and cursing him out. “I was drinking here when you were in diapers. It’s Merchant’s,” the man said. McGinty is so part of the culture here, that he’s got a drink named for him, the McGintini, a supposedly godawful concoction that staff sometimes give to those who ask, like I did, for something special.
Before the pandemic hit, the bar was open from 6 am to 2 am, every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving, Merchant’s has hosted weddings and several funerals, including one for a longtime homeless patron who staff knew only as Skip. “Thirty-five members of his family showed up,” Jenkins says, “a lot of them happy that he had people around him in his last years.”
As for the bar’s future? “I’m doing everything I can think of to make sure we make it, and it’s still not a sure thing,” says Jenkins.
On the bar’s fundraising page, there’s a $100 donation posted by McGinty. It includes a paean to Merchant’s, and to what a bar can be.
“This is one of the last footholds of an Oakland that is quickly losing itself. All are welcome, all you need is a little money and some manners. When they open again, come drink, fall in love, break your heart, forget that shit, fall down, dance a jig, sing a song, lose your soul, bet the farm, lose the farm, no regrets, rock and roll.”
Wine Enthusiast is spotlighting the bars, bottle shops and individuals affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and what they’re doing to weather the crisis. Find more at Business of Bars.