Last November, when Elbo Room co-owners Matt Shapiro and Erik Cantu put the Jack London Square bar and music venue up for sale, patrons wondered what would happen with the space famed for its punk rock and up-and-coming darkwave shows. 

For two best friends from Oakland, Dean Ngo and Jimmy Ly, it was the opportunity they had been waiting for. Ngo and Ly had dreamed of one day owning a bar together, and they had been searching for the right place to buy. When the Elbo Room went on the market, they knew it was the place they had been looking for.

“It’s everybody’s teenage dream to own a bar,” Ly said. 

Elbo Room: Open on Sunday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; 311 Broadway, Oakland;

They completed the purchase in July, and, after some renovations, the Elbo Room reopened on Sept. 7 with a new cocktail program and plans to keep the punk rock and other shows coming in the upstairs venue. 

Ngo and Ly like to bar hop and have great memories of local bars like Make Westing on Telegraph Avenue and the now-shuttered SoMar just a few doors down.

Their dream was to own a cocktail lounge, but by purchasing the Elbo Room, they wanted to find a way to do both: have a cocktail lounge and maintain the legacy of the Elbo Room, which dates back to the original San Francisco Mission District location that opened in 1991 and shuttered in 2018. Oakland’s Elbo Room opened in March of 2018. The downstairs area was renovated to fit their cocktail lounge vision, and the upstairs will remain a venue for live music. 

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The downstairs bar hosts DJ nights on the weekends. Credit: Amir Aziz

Downstairs, the DJ booth remains at the same place on the left side of the entrance to the bar. The bar remains similar, with the same comfy leather stools. One significant change: Ngo and Ly chose to remove the raised-up wood benches opposite the bar, which was a key seating feature under the previous ownership. Instead, there are low leather couches that line the wall and face the bar. The duo also added two big TV screens in each corner to show games of all the Bay Area sports teams. 

“There are small things that you can’t see on the surface that add up,” Ngo said of investing close to $100,000 in the changes.

The duo also hired a mixologist to craft a specialty cocktail menu. Since the business partners are from Oakland, they wanted the cocktail menu to pay homage to Bay Area music. 

“We wanted to represent the Bay,” Ngo said. “This is our hometown.”

Some of the drinks include “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters (Four Roses Bourbon, St. George Spiced Pear, pineapple puree, and lemon juice), “93 ‘Til Infinity” by Souls of Mischief (St. George Green Chile Vodka, lime juice, grapefruit juice, gomme syrup and grapefruit bitters), and “Blow the Whistle” by Too $hort (Rémy Martin 1738, Meletti Amaro, Cointreau, lemon juice and Angostura bitters.) 

“Four Roses bourbon is our well,” Ngo said of the Kentucky spirit that has won several World Whiskies awards. “But we are scotch drinkers. We love scotch on the rocks.”

In their younger years, Ngo’s cocktail of choice was a Long Island Iced Tea (vodka, tequila, light rum, triple sec, gin, and a splash of cola), and Ly’s was a Beautiful (Hennessy and Grand Marnier.) 

Ngo said that since the bar reopened, “93 ‘Til Infinity” and “I’m So Excited” seem to be the two most popular cocktails so far. 

The bar also has local craft beer on tap and offers all standard cocktails, like Jack and Coke. There are currently six draft beers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Lagunitas Best of Both Worlds IPA, Lagunitas IPA, Firestone 805, Modelo, and Schilling cider.

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The new owners wanted to keep as much of the legacy left behind by the original Elbo Room. Credit: Amir Aziz

The new owners have also launched DJ nights on Friday and Saturday nights. On Oct. 28, the bar hosted a Halloween party with DJ Goldgills. For the first weekend in November, DJ Larry Brite will be spinning on Friday night, and a Hyphy-Rasta night with OG the DJ, will take over on Saturday night. 

Eventually, there are plans to incorporate karaoke and open-mic nights on weeknights when it tends to be slower. The bar has a happy hour every day from 5-8 p.m.

“We are trying to get things up and running,” Ngo said. 

They also plan on continuing the legacy of live music in the upstairs area and have already scheduled the bar’s first live show on Friday, Nov. 12, when the emo, post-punk band HillBlocksView takes the stage. 

And while the live music will remain mostly punk-rock shows, the new owners want the community to know they are open to booking other genres — anything from a comedy show to a rap battle. 

The duo knows that the bar’s success will also benefit the businesses around the neighborhood. 

“We are committed to being here,” Ngo said. “And hopefully, more people are willing to come out.” 

Visit the newly re-opened Elbo Room on a weeknight, and you might find Ngo and Ly behind the bar pouring “Blow the Whistle” cocktails. Or, you can ask them about their favorite scotch on the rocks while a Lil’ Wayne track plays in the background.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.