For more than 100 years, Merchant’s Saloon has earned its reputation as one of Oakland’s grungiest dive bars, with its tagline, “Poisoning Oakland Since 1916,” and its most prominent piece of decor: the big trough that everyone mistakes for a urinal, but was actually used as a spittoon back in the day. But one of the little-known bits of Merchant’s trivia, owner JJ Jenkins tells Eater SF, is that during the 1950s and 60s, the bar was a restaurant called “Merchant’s Lunch” — a spot that was known at the time as the best spot to grab an Italian meal in the Jack London neighborhood.
It’s an odd little factoid because, of course, Merchant’s hasn’t served any kind of lunch for decades now. Oakland dive bar aficionados know the place mostly for its stiff, unfussy cocktails, loud music, and generally rowdy atmosphere — that is, until the pandemic struck, and Merchant’s, like so many other Bay Area bars, had to shut things down completely.
But now, Jenkins says, Merchant’s has come full circle, in a sense: Starting in August, the bar was finally able to reopen for outdoor drinking — and was able to fulfill the state’s requirement that food must also be sold thanks to a collaboration with Italian Colors, the Montclair neighborhood Italian standby. Yes, 50 or 60-some-odd years later, Merchant’s Saloon is, for all intents and purposes, an Italian restaurant once again, serving pasta and meatballs — along with those stiff drinks — out on the sidewalk seven days a week.
“It’s all about survival right now,” Jenkins says.
Like many other Bay Area bars, the coronavirus crisis has been a time of continuous reinvention for Merchant’s. The bar closed entirely for a few weeks when the shelter-in-place order dropped, as Jenkins scrambled to come up with ways to keep paying the bar’s 16-person staff. It tried to ramp up its merchandise sales and morphed into more of a retail liquor store operation, selling cans and bottles of beer and spirits — though with a BevMo just down the street, that didn’t get much traction. In May, noting the Jack London neighborhood’s notorious lack of any full-service grocery store, Jenkins started selling grocery and pantry items at the bar.
None of it has added up to anything close to enough, but being able to serve cocktails to customers outdoors has been the biggest breakthrough so far — and, because Merchant’s no longer has a kitchen, it’s one that was only possible through this collaboration with Jenkins’ friends over at Italian Colors.
It’s not lost on Jenkins how fitting it is — or ironic, depending on your point of view — that the bar would return to its Italian food roots during a time like this. That particular era in Merchant’s existence is mostly lost to history now, at least in terms of any digital paper trail that can be found online. Gene Anderson, a local historian in Oakland, tells Eater SF that the only record he was able to find was a listing in the 1969 Oakland phone directory, in which the establishment at 401 2nd Street was listed as “Merchant’s Restaurant,” owned by a “Lorenzo Gregori” — an indication, perhaps, that the bar’s tenure as an Italian restaurant lasted at least until the end of that decade.
Jenkins explains that the part of the bar that now houses a large booth used to be a small kitchen. There’s no information that’s readily available about what exactly was on the menu at “Merchant’s Restaurant” or “Merchant’s Lunch,” but Jenkins imagines that it would have been simple fare — red-sauce pasta and meatballs and such.
The food menu the bar is offering today isn’t purely Italian — there are things like gumbo and a jerk chicken leg over rice. But, in keeping with the spirit of the old Merchant’s, Jenkins says the important thing is that everything is priced reasonably: You can get a plate of penne with marinara sauce for $6 or a couple of big meatballs for $8.
The new food isn’t the only thing that’s different about Merchant’s these days. The bar used to open from 7 a.m.–2 a.m., catering in the early mornings to longshoremen and produce district workers who’d either be ending a very late shift or starting a very early one. Now, those hours are much shorter, Jenkins says, and he’s getting a lot more customers who live in the neighborhood — who’d never visited before because their impression of the place was that it was a “rough biker bar.” And even with the new outdoor dining and cocktails, Jenkins says, revenue is still down to about 40 percent of what it used to be.
Still, starting to serve customers again has given Jenkins some hope, even if he isn’t sure how many more months he’ll be able to keep the business afloat — especially if things don’t return to any semblance of normalcy until at least next summer, as he predicts. “Hopefully what I’m doing will extend my runway,” Jenkins says.
Merchant’s Saloon’s current hours are Monday through Thursday, 1–8 p.m. and Friday through Sunday 1–10 p.m. See the bar’s current food menu, provided by Italian Colors, below: