2300 Webster St. (at 23rd Street), Oakland
Many friends dream of opening up a bar, but few actually do it and even fewer still have the industry know-how to do it as well as Matt Meyer and Daniel Paez, co-owners of Uptown Oakland’s Low Bar.
Situated on the corner of Webster and 23rd streets, Low Bar’s effortlessly cool-yet-casual vibe makes you want to hang out and stay a while, which is exactly what the owners intended.
“We wanted Low Bar to capture the spirit of a dive bar and the vibrancy of a taqueria,” said chef Meyer. “So it’s really, really casual. But the food and the drinks are like, really, really good.”
“Those are the spirits we wanted to emulate most,” added Paez, who heads up the bar. “There shouldn’t be any pressure or any expectations. That’s why we chose [the name] ‘Low Bar’ — We’re trying to set your expectations pretty low, and if they’re exceeded, great. If they’re not, we mourn you.”
But don’t set your expectations or metaphorical bar too low for this joint because it’s exactly what the post-pandemic (fingers crossed) dining community needs right now: a refreshingly delicious food menu featuring flavors of the season and whatever Meyer feels like cooking up; a cocktail lineup that pays homage to the classics while offering innovative, balanced sips; and a set of friends who really don’t take themselves too seriously.
Low Bar: Creating a place of their own in Oakland
Meyer and Paez, both food and drink veterans in their own right, first started messing around with the idea of opening a bar together years ago, after working at a few eateries that just weren’t hitting the mark behind the scenes.
“Matt and I have been really good friends for a really long time,” Paez said, “and I was working at a place and was just like, ‘I can’t believe people and investors are giving this thing money, and they don’t even know what they’re doing. We could do a better job. Let’s just do it.’”
So they did, and over the last three years, the chef-bartender duo built out a concept, a business plan and goals, ultimately landing on creating a space that they themselves would want to hang out at — a place, according to Paez, with plenty of potential but nothing too perfect or stodgy.
“We just wanted a space that felt organic and something that was for us,” he said.
So after snagging the keys to the corner spot (what was once Hawker Fare) in November 2019 and signing the lease January 2020, Meyer and Paez started preparing for a June 2020 opening. But, as we all know, 2020 had other plans.
“Our opening date was [supposed to be] June 1, to give ourselves a nice comfortable six months to build it out,” Meyer said of the original plan. “We had all these investors ready to go… we had our ducks in a row. And then 2020 happened and people were like, ‘Yeah, no, sorry. I’m not giving you money right now. Your industry is literally dying.’”
After years of carefully planning the Oakland opening, the Low Bar crew was left without funding. And, as if to add insult to injury, fate dealt another blow when both Meyer and Paez lost their jobs, “and all that other shit that everyone went through,” Meyer added.
Luckily, the partners found reprieve with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen (WCK), joining the ranks of countless other struggling food entrepreneurs who are carving out a living in the “dying” restaurant industry, while simultaneously sustaining others through warm, hearty meals.
Pivoting to a delivery-only operation called Chancho’s, Meyer and Paez began cooking burritos and tamales for WCK in July. They made more than 10,000 meals in other people’s kitchens — “We would get there super early so that we would be out of their hair before service started,” Paez recalled — that would ultimately fund the opening of Low Bar.
“Any way we could hustle, we were doing it,” said a heartfelt Meyer. “It was a long process, but we were able to get open with that money.”
“Honestly, I need to write José Andrés a letter thanking him personally for my life,” he added.
What’s on the menu at Low Bar
While chef Andrés may deserve a bit of credit in getting the bar and kitchen up and running (which has been in a soft opening since March), true ovation goes to Meyer and Paez for maintaining their vision through hard work, determination and a hell of a lot of grit.
Low Bar’s food and drinks reflect the friends’ Mexican American heritages, but their menus also showcase their creativity and skill.
Take the shrimp aguachile ($13). Light, refreshing and perfect for warm-weather dining, the dish offers fresh shrimp dressed in a blood orange ponzu and Fresno chili mayo adorned with a sprinkling of beet sprouts and an uber-fresh, masa-forward tostada.
Meyer’s rather pointedly named “An Egg” ($9) is a playful take on a Scotch egg. The gorgeous golden yolk melds with the flavorful chorizo wrapping and the crunchy outer corn tortilla panko coating. Dipped in the accompanying swipe of pickled jalapeño gribiche followed by a refreshing piece of sweet green cabbage and that’s one comforting mouthful of savory goodness.
And, lest we forget, Paez’s perfectly balanced (and that is not a hyperbolic statement) drinks to help wash your meal down. Curating his menu with the philosophy that every cocktail should be “really easy and approachable,” Paez has six house cocktails, each priced at $13, and most of which are made with just four ingredients.
“Some bartenders really love using eight or more ingredients in a drink,” said Paez. “I don’t really need to do that. I feel like [highlighting], one or two ingredients and being able to taste each with clarity is important” — the same goes for honing in on and excelling at the classics ($12 each), like an Old Fashioned, Negroni or Daiquiri.
“It’s really approachable and casual, but it’s fun,” Paez said of coming up with his menu. “And that’s how we want people to understand cocktails,” while also demystifying them so people can order with confidence, because “getting drinks shouldn’t be a gamble.”
Paez’s Deadbeat Summer, for example, is an outrageously quaffable mix of mezcal, tequila, spiced grapefruit cordial and lime. That’s it. And damn if it isn’t the tastiest balance of sweet, smokey, tart, tangy and spicy I’ve had in a while. And when paired with Meyer’s grilled octopus ($19), it might just be a match made in heaven.
Now, about that octopus. Whatever you do, order it. I don’t care if you “don’t like seafood,” order it anyway. Impossibly tender, almost buttery in texture and taste, this grilled octopus is by far the shining star on an already stellar menu. Placed on top of a bed of butter-braised leeks, just-blanched pea tendrils, crispy-salty potatoes and drizzled with an unctuous cashew salsa macha, this octopus is all kinds of right and you need it in your life.
If this review isn’t enough to get you to order it, just know that it’s currently the chef’s favorite dish on the menu.
“I’ve always liked cooking octopus,” Meyer said, “and that’s the one ‘fancy restaurant’ dish on my menu.”
Whether you consider it fancy or not, Low Bar really is a misnomer. Sitting somewhere between a neighborhood haunt you can grab a casual drink at, and an elevated dining experience that doesn’t have the price tag to match, this bar and kitchen is by no means underwhelming.
“You don’t have to have any sort of attire. You don’t have to make a reservation,” Paez said. “You’re just gonna get some really good, stand-up food and drinks” — a sentiment that matches Low Bar’s “Come for the food and drinks. Stay for the food and drinks” motto.
That’s a concept we can all get behind.
Low Bar in Uptown Oakland is open 3-10 p.m., Thursday through Sunday. Since it is still in a soft opening and adhering to COVID guidelines there is limited indoor and outdoor seating.