Town Bar & Lounge
2001 Broadway (near Berkley Way), Oakland
It’s been exactly a year since Nosh first got in touch with Joshua Huynh about Town Bar & Lounge, a bar he was working to open inside Oakland’s historic I. Magnin building. Between Oakland’s notorious permitting system, the additional work it takes to build a food or dining establishment out in a previously non-food space, and the global pandemic, it’s been a long trip for Town Bar, which will finally open to customers on Thursday, April 20.
In addition to the details on the bar from our report below, expect a full crafted cocktail menu from Oscar Sinisterra (Hello Stranger) and a custom sound system. “I’m so excited to share with everyone what my family and I have been working on for so long,” Huynh said of the bar, which will post its ongoing days and hours of operation on its website and to Instagram. — Eve Batey
Nosh’s original report, published on July 28, 2022:
Joshua Huynh has been working for years to open Town Bar & Lounge in Oakland’s historic I. Magnin building, signing a lease for a space in the structure well before the pandemic began. “Things are going fast now,” he said, and his new LGBTQIA+ bar might be ready to open by this fall. “There’s been a lot of unexpected stuff,” since the project began, “but it’s still a dream come true for me.”
Huynh is East Bay born and raised, the only person in his family who’s lived all their life on U.S. soil. “My parents are immigrants from Vietnam,” Huynh said. “I’m first-generation, and my sister and brother were born before my family came over.” Though Town Bar is Huynh’s dream, it’s also a family affair: his brother, Sang, is also his business partner at the watering hole, and his dad is the general contractor.
“We are doing virtually everything in-house,” Huynh said of the massive task of renovating his space in the 1930s-era building, which in recent decades has been subdivided into individual office, retail and dining spaces. The slot Huynh picked at 2001 Broadway hasn’t ever been a restaurant or bar before, which is one of the reasons the buildout (which Hoodline caught wind of in early 2021) is taking so long.
“The city’s been helpful and encouraging,” Huynh said of his years of effort to convert the spot. “But this is the first time a bar will be there, which means lots of permits, lots of red tape, lots of inspections.”
This is also the first time Huynh will own a bar, but a decade ago he was a bartender at some of the most prominent gay bars in San Francisco, mostly in the Castro district. He left the service industry eventually, but always missed it. “For many years, I just thought that I had to work in what I majored in in college,” Huynh said. “I did interior design for many years, but I just wasn’t happy.”
When he took stock things, Huynh said, “I realized that the best times in my life were in the Castro, being myself, being gay and free.” Thinking about how to recapture that contentment, he joined the lottery for an East Bay liquor license, “got it, and things spiraled from there.”
“I had the vision of the bar before we even had the space,” Huynh said. “I love the Art Deco era,” and he’d already started sketching out how he’d apply that early 1900s style to a contemporary queer bar. He even came close to signing a lease in a brand new building when the space in an actual Art Deco structure — Uptown’s I. Magnin building, which was home to the upscale department store for over six decades — came to his attention.
The building satisfied Huynh’s design dreams, and the location, near popular queer bars like The Port, Summer Bar & Lounge and Que Rico, sent his imagination soaring. “I would love to make a quote unquote Castro of Oakland,” he said, “where people flow from bar to bar all night, a real gay scene right here in Oakland.”
The Castro-ification of Uptown might be a ways away quite yet, so let’s keep the focus on Town, where Huynh has planned a sleek, open space, one that feels even larger because of the “huge 9×18 windows” across its front. (We’ve come a long way from the days when queer bars covered over its windows to protect the privacy of their patrons.)
Huynh, who expects to serve customers from behind the bar from time to time, is still working out the cocktail menu, but says with vigor that “we will definitely have drinks.” He’s also “still trying to figure out the food aspect” of the business, and hopes to seat drinkers and diners in an outdoor space.
Speaking to Huynh, it’s hard not to be struck by how unflagging his optimism is after all this time. After all, when this journey started, there was no pandemic, no supply chain issues, no skyrocketing inflation, no looming threats of a rollback of rights for LGBTQIA+ folks. Given how much things have changed since he started on this unexpectedly long project, how does he keep his spirits up?
Huynh paused when I asked him this, and I could tell he was thinking hard. “I can’t ignore the amount of hits we’ve taken since 2019,” he said, slowly. “But I can’t give up because they put a lot on the line for me.” He’s talking about his family, which “has always accepted me, and always supported me, no matter what.”
“Now, I can’t do anything but put my head down and go for this,” he said. “There’s no secret to my attitude. Honestly, it’s just that quitting is not even an option. A lot of people are counting on me.”
Follow Town Bar & Lounge on Instagram for updates and a confirmed opening date.