Thee Stork Club
2330 Telegraph Ave. (between 23rd and 24th streets), Oakland
Slated to open July 1 2022
After decades and decades of generously poured drinks and live music, Oakland dive The Stork Club went dark in March 2020, announcing that it was closed for good a few months later.
But now a new bar and live music venue is preparing to open in the storied 2330 Telegraph Ave. space. It’s called Thee Stork Club, and while it shares some DNA with the previous occupant of the space, it’s intended to be a completely new operation, driven by a team of East Bay nightlife and performance veterans and guided by film/lit/trash culture icon John Waters.
The new bar, which is expected to open on July 1, is a collaboration between Billy Joe Agan and Matt Patane, the owners of Oakland Dive Eli’s Mile High Club, and Marc Ribak, whose Total Trash Productions is behind the Mosswood Meltdown, the John Waters-hosted Oakland music festival formerly known as Burger Boogaloo.
The plan behind the venue (if you’re wondering about the extra “e” in the name, check out this garage rock meets etymology explanation) has been ages in the making. Agan said that he’s known Ribak “for years,” and that they “grew up in same music scene” in Southern California.
“We always talked about opening a music venue together,” Again said, but nothing came of it until the pandemic, when financial pressures forced a lot of bars — many struggling long before COVID-19 hit U.S. shores — to close their doors for good. When I spoke to Billy Joe Agan, one of the co-owners of Eli’s Mile High Club, in March 2021, he mentioned that he’d been looking at spaces with Ribak for something new, and said “we might be opening another bar in the old Stork Club.”
“Oh, ha, yeah,” Agan said when I reminded him of that conversation this week. “That’s right when we approached the investment group that owns the building for a lease.” Of course, it wasn’t that easy, as the publicans then “had to compete with a couple other big nightlife names for the space.” After close to a year of negotiations, the lease was theirs, and renovations — if you want to call them that — could begin. (Contrary to a report published elsewhere, neither Agan nor the partnership purchased the business that had previously occupied the space.)
I must qualify the term “renovations” because the idea behind Thee Stork Club is almost an anti-renovation, the way Agan told it. Waters, a part-time Bay Area resident who directed trash-embracing films like Polyester and Pink Flamingos, isn’t technically the fourth partner in the business, but as a longtime friend of his Ribak’s, the cultural icon’s influence, mentorship and guidance is all over the design plan, which Agan called “grandma’s whorehouse.”
“We’re cleaning the place, and then adding some design elements that are part ‘proto fern bar,’ part ‘1970s dive bar,’ and part ‘the trashiness of Madonna Inn,’” the over-the-top San Luis Obispo hotel.
“It’s funny because it lent itself to a very cheap build,” Agan said of the aesthetic vision. “It’s a lot of woodgrain formica, cheap paneling and plywood.”
“So, are you saying your bar is basically a set from a John Waters movie?” I asked Agan, who paused for a minute. “Well, he invented that entire culture,” Agan said. “But John’s cultural influence is so strong in Mark’s world,” that it’s hard to see where one man’s vision ends and the other’s begins. It’s also a vision that might be reaching the zeitgeist — another Oakland bar that opened this year, Crybaby, also gives a nod to Waters, as it’s named after his (arguably) most accessible film, but doesn’t have a direct relationship with the director.
The drinks at Thee Stork Club also resonate with Waters-ness. “I want to bring back the trash cocktail,” Agan said. “The kamikaze, a harvey wallbanger,” anything that gives the consumer “a sugary intense hangover.”
“And lots of wild, really gaudy garnish,” Agan said. “I wanna revolutionize garnish.”
Garnish might be the only thing patrons will have to chew over for a while, as food isn’t in the cards quite yet at Thee Stork Club. Agan and Patane have built a reputation for fostering the East Bay’s best emerging chefs at Eli’s, but for now, the “huge, really nice commercial kitchen” at the bar will stay cold.
“We wouldn’t have been able to open as fast as we wanted to” if they’d sought approval of the kitchen, Agan said, “and we want to keep our focus on drinks and live music at first.”
The team also seems very focused on building an experience, which might seem funny given the rough-and-tumble ethos of Agan and Patane’s other business. “There’s been a big change in what people want out of their spaces,” Agan said, veering dangerously close to sincerity. “They’re looking for a different experience when they go out to drink. People want a place with a soul that has developed over time.”
“Are you saying this is a nostalgia play?” I asked. “No, no, I’m talking about people younger than you, even younger than me. Like, I meet 25-year-olds, they’re looking for a little dirt, a little patina.” And that won’t be in short supply: As the space has been a bar since either 1958 or all the way back to 1918 (depending on who you ask), no matter how hard Thee Stork Club’s staffers scrub, it’s likely some historic grit will remain.
Agan is clear, though, that Thee Stork Club’s target audience isn’t just the Gen Z crowd. Waters, who appears to be acting as a hands-gently-on guardian angel/mentor/artistic godfather for the venture, will turn 76 this month, and the bar is basically built to give him a place to stop by. But what about other elders, those without a Maybelline mustache?
“Look, John, he exists in a cultural experience no one has ever experienced before,” Agan said. “But it’s one we can all learn from. [What] I’d tell any other septuagenarians out there is that the way that you keep yourself relevant and vibrant is to go out and meet other people, even people younger than you. Come to Thee Stork Club, strike up a conversation. Don’t be afraid of the world.”