“I want people to walk in and say, ‘I’ve walked into the Spenger’s museum,’” said Emil Peinert, one of the six owners of North Oakland neighborhood dive, The Kingfish.
We’re standing inside a room found on the downstairs of the back office building at the far end of the Kingfish’s outdoor patio, where Peinert shows me the future site of the pub’s kitchen. When finished, it will be designed as a tribute to Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, the 128-year-old establishment in West Berkeley that closed last October.
For now, the room is in disarray, filled with random items, the biggest being a massive teak wood bar, set askew to fit inside the space. Just a week before, it sat inside Spenger’s. Peinert and crew had procured it from the former restaurant, along with some of the other furnishings like chairs and wood paneling from the walls. The bar was the final piece of the Spenger’s legacy he and his partners wanted to preserve at the Kingfish, joining more than $30,000 worth of Spenger’s memorabilia that they purchased at recent auctions at Oakland’s Clars Auction Gallery.
Peinert said the Kingfish had always planned to have a kitchen after the entire building was hauled 35 yards from Claremont Avenue to Telegraph in 2015 to make way for condos. The owners built a space for the kitchen at the new lot — what was a former Ethiopian restaurant, and home to Rip Wilson’s Soul Brothers Kitchen before that — but they “didn’t want to stomach the cost of it,” so they waited a few years. In the meantime, a popcorn machine and, sometimes, a food truck parked out front of the bar provide sustenance for visitors looking to fill their stomachs with something to soak up their beers.
But as of six months ago, the owners were finally financially recovered from the epic move and decided it was time to build out the kitchen. Their plan is for a diner-style open kitchen, where customers can sidle up to a bar and order food prepared just behind the counter. Originally, they planned to have someone build the bar, but then they had a better idea.
“We thought a historic bar would be cooler than a new bar. And a historic bar with a tie to the area would be much cooler,” Peinert said. “Everything else at the Kingfish has a history to it, so we started looking up historic bars.”
Peinert and the other five Kingfish owners — Mike Bowler, Vincent Traverso, Kelly King, Russell Jones, a.k.a. “Uncle Russ,” (Peinert’s family friend) and John Peinert (his father) — could be called the East Bay’s village green preservation society. Most of them were longtime regulars at the ‘Fish, and they banded together in 2009 to reopen the bar after it was closed for 18 months.
The owners have made every effort to preserve it, keeping all the charming details intact in the old shack — including the decades worth of graffiti scribbles and faded sports ephemera and mementos that plaster almost every surface of its walls and ceilings, its old shuffleboard table, and the salvaged floors and benches from Cal’s sports centers that were saved from the dump and installed at the ‘Fish by its former owner. In 2011, the Kingfish filed for landmark status with Oakland, but dropped the pursuit after the move to Telegraph Avenue. “Because we own the name, property, license and buildings,” landmark status is not of urgency, Peinert said.
Brennan’s and Spenger’s had just closed as the owners were beginning to search for old bars for the kitchen, and they were especially drawn to the latter establishment because the two businesses had a history. Before it was a watering hole, the Kingfish was a bait shop, and according to Peinert, Spenger’s was where the original Kingfish owner, Bill Traverse, bought his bait.
In January and February, the owners attended the Spenger’s auctions, where they purchased as much of the old decor and memorabilia from the former seafood restaurant that they could. The bounty included ship signs, wood-mounted fish, piles of framed photographs and artwork, four ship-wheel chandeliers, the binnacle (a glass-topped case) and sign for the 34.29-carat canary yellow diamond that Frank Spenger so brazenly displayed at his restaurant that many doubted the gemstone was real. (It was. The diamond ended up selling at auction for $519,500.) The Kingfish will not have a real diamond, but Peinert said he plans to make a replica to display in the new kitchen.
Two of the stranger things that they bought were the 1930s dive suit originally owned by Frank Spenger’s brother, Paul, and a taxidermized peacock, which was displayed in Frank’s office. “We bought it on a whim,” Peinert admits.
All told, Peinert said the owners “purchased 50-100% more paraphernalia than we could hang up.” They will resell or give away what they can’t hang, but they hope “when we’re done, people will be able to come into our kitchen and immediately realize its a replica of Spenger’s even if we don’t put up the Spenger’s name.”
When Peinert and crew picked up the bar from Spenger’s, they took photos of the interior, including the patterns of the floor tiles and the wood-paneled walls, which they’ll recreate in the space.
It won’t just look like Spenger’s inside the kitchen — if all goes as planned, familiar Spenger’s aromas will waft from the Kingfish too. Peinert says the diner will serve three or four of the former restaurant’s iconic dishes. They’re still figuring out what those signature dishes will be, but Alicia Spenger has shared some of her family’s recipes, including their chowder. There will also be a few Kingfish classics on the menu, harkening back to when the ‘Fish’s original owner transitioned the bait shop to a watering hole, and started serving soup and sandwiches for lunch. Simply put, “It’ll be American bar food,” Peinert said.
Peinert said the kitchen hours will mirror the bar’s hours, because, as he laments, “There’s not late night food in this town.” It may also serve lunch during the week if there’s a demand for it.
The owners are still thinking of names for the kitchen. They’ve thrown around a few names, like the Diamond Bar at the Kingfish, The Grotto and Spenger’s at the Kingfish. They’re currently conferring with a lawyer and the Spenger family to ensure whatever moniker they choose doesn’t ruffle any feathers.
For now, Peinert said the Spenger family has been nothing but congenial about their plans for the tribute to the former restaurant. “They’re excited to see their family legacy continue.”
But we will all have to be patient. Peinert doesn’t see the Kingfish kitchen opening for another year, if that. They still need to have the plans approved by the city, then install all the equipment before they can even start the momentous task of putting up all that memorabilia and decor.
“It’ll be open when it’s open.”