Oakland's Last Piano Bar
The Alley, one of the last remainders from a rich history of Oakland piano bars, was founded in 1933. It is located on Grand Avenue in Oakland, CA, near the Grand Lake Theatre and the Lake Merritt estuary. Most of the piano bars in the area closed decades ago, but The Alley is very much alive.
The bar is part saloon, part 1920's alley, a design the East Bay Express once described as “Dashiell Hammet in Disneyland.” Complete with wood shingles, telephone wires, and windows in the interior, and graced by the silhouette of a busty dame above one rooftop as well as a fake pawn shop along the back wall, The Alley’s interior is a snapshot frozen in a time of constant change. Cozy booths fitted throughout the venue are similar to those found at a diner, and the walls are bedecked with approximately 40,000 to 50,000 business cards stapled up by visitors from all over the world for decades. Business cards from Jerry Brown, Gregg Allman and more can be found.
The grand piano is located past the main bar, topped by a lacquered wood table. Twelve seats fit around the bar and a pianist sits on the far end. Songbooks and microphones also rest on the bar. Regulars primarily sing songs from the Great American Songbook, with the lyrics of many tunes stored in binders for any singers who need them, but more contemporary songs are also now played. Since the 1950s to the present, participating singers perch around the piano to await their turn to sing along with the resident piano player (or guitar player) for the evening. From 1959 to 2017, the Alley's resident piano player was the legendary Rod Dibble, whose 4000+ song repertoire was built from the Great American Songbook, comprising the Tin Pan Alley tunes and Broadway hits that have become jazz standards. The tradition continues today, with singers keeping alive classics by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and more, while more contemporary songs are available upon request.
Dinner is served nightly from 6 to 9:30 and focuses on simple and classic American fare, featuring hamburgers, cornmeal crusted fried chicken, and an award-winning steak.
The Alley has featured in travel and restaurant guides to Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. The GrassRoutes Travel Guide to Oakland: The Soul of the City Next Door describes The Alley as "an old-time alternative to karaoke" representing "Oakland at its friendliest." The bar attracts "a wacky mix of hams and crooners", says the Lonely Planet Guide, reporting that there are no beers on draft but the mixed drinks are "strooooong." Rough Guides listed The Alley as a bar in 2003 then as a live music venue in 2011. A guide to dive bars in the San Francisco Bay Area listed The Alley among five of Oakland's dive bars, the group including Smitty's, a local bar several doors up the street from The Alley.