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The Alley Piano Bar & Restaurant
3325 Grand Ave. (between Elwood and Santa Clara), Oakland
At the end of 2020, things didn’t look so good for The Alley, the Oakland piano bar that since 1933 has served patrons hungry for food, drink and sing-alongs at 3325 Grand Ave. Shuttered since the Bay Area locked down at the beginning of the pandemic, the bar was on the brink of closure. After a fundraiser generated over $94,000, The Alley was saved — and owner Jacqualine Simpkins says that after months of getting the bar ready to reopen in the COVID-19 era, it will “finally” reopen tonight.
Speaking to Nosh back in 2019, Simpkins said that The Alley was Oakland’s third-oldest bar … but it’s not actually a bar at all. It’s actually classified as a restaurant (there’s a full kitchen in the back) with a cabaret license and a full bar. It’s that designation that allows it to reopen now, while Alameda County remains in the orange reopening tier, as under California health orders, bars that do not serve full meals are restricted to outdoor service only, but restaurants may reopen at 50% capacity indoors, with a maximum of 200 people allowed. According to The Alley, seating will be limited to 45 people in the bar.
It’s been a long road back for The Alley, which (per a 1954 piece in The Oakland Tribune) opened right after Prohibition ended and was then known for its “dollar steak.” A look at its heritage property application from 2016 tells much of its tale: Performances at its piano were broadcast live in the 1940s, and by the mid-1950s its (then new) baby grand was the site of performances from professional and amateur entertainers. It’s been the subject of at least one documentary and appeared in Blindspotting, an award-winning comedy starring Daveed Diggs.
A community grew around that piano, the most recent generation of which mounted a fundraiser in late 2020 to help Simpkins — who has owned the bar since 2009 — cover The Alley’s utilities, taxes and mortgage. The goal was $75,000. That amount was exceeded within days, and a subsequent online auction generated additional funds.
At the same time, The Alley’s regulars have maintained a connection through regular online meetups, with Alley patron Rachel Howard telling the SF Chronicle that over the past year, “we’ve absolutely become closer, in a very natural way,” during this last difficult year.
The piano bar will be open tonight, with pianist Bryan Seet, but with some safety modifications — no seating around the piano, a time limit of 75 minutes per visit and only 1-2 singers allowed to sing at a time.
The Alley reopens for business on Thursday, April 29. Hours are 5-11 p.m. (food service starts at 5:30 p.m.; piano bar hours start at 7 p.m.). Reservations are available by calling 510-444-8505.
This story was updated after publication with hours and new safety precautions.