Decades-old Smitty’s dive bar to reopen under new management

Grand Avenue in Oakland, just north of Lake Merritt, is home to two of the greatest dive bars in the Bay Area, one being The Alley. However, the other has been sitting vacant for the past three years, as management never reopened the business.

Since the pandemic shutdown, Smitty’s, an Oakland dive bar housed in a 99-year-old building, has idled in time at 3339 Grand Ave. Then-owner Byron Schostag simply never returned, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. (The Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but have separate newsrooms.)

When the county announced an immediate shutdown in 2020, Schostag took the computer and left the bar fully stocked with cash still in the register, new owner JJ Jenkins told SFGATE in a phone interview.

“When we first walked into Smitty’s, it was like people were there the night before, but that ‘night before’ was three years ago,” Jenkins said.

But Oakland industry vets Jenkins and Shari Murphy want to take control of the famous dive, and they have the experience to do so. Jenkins has owned and operated Merchant’s Saloon, which first opened in 1916, for the past 17 years. Two years ago, he along with Murphy, resurrected Baggy’s by the Lake, which has been around since the 1930s. Both have been thriving with Jenkins at the helm.

While they have signed the lease, they now have to wait for the Oakland City Council to allow them to take full ownership.

Pre-pandemic, the city of Oakland changed a law to state that if a business has been closed for more than two years, the new ownership has to apply for new conditional use permits, according to Jenkins. In an email to SFGATE, a spokesperson for the city of Oakland confirmed that every conditional use permit has to be renewed every two years unless there was damage or destruction.

The timetable for all of the conditional use paperwork to pass through the necessary channels, which includes notifying all of the neighbors in the immediate area and the surrounding businesses, “usually takes about six months,” according to Jenkins. But the final step is to have the paperwork approved by the city council.

Jenkins didn’t mince words. “It’s a clusterf—k,” he said regarding the standard, though often frustrating, red tape, which also includes a hefty application fee. The city of Oakland shared with SFGATE that it charged Jenkins and Murphy $8,045.12 for a conditional use permit. The plan is to keep it a dive bar — almost exactly as it was, save for the painting of a mural — and yet there is still a long process before it can reopen.

Jenkins and Murphy are targeting an opening by spring 2024, but they would prefer it happen sooner rather than later. They are ready to turn on the neon martini glass that hangs above the sign out front. And they already have the support of local community members.

“I was really concerned when I had to reach out to the [local] business and neighborhood associations,” Jenkins said. “But the head of the business association said, ‘This is rad,’ and I even got a call from the neighborhood association president who said, ‘This is fantastic. We are so happy it’s you [after we researched you].’”

But both associations shared with Jenkins their displeasure with the yearlong opening timeline. “We need this now,” they told him. “What can we do to help?”

When Jenkins and Murphy do finally open up shop, whenever that may be, it will still be a dive bar, even though they are changing the name to Smitty’s Lounge.

“We aren’t part of the cocktail movement,” Jenkins said. “We won’t be serving mint juleps for $19 in a 4-ounce bronze cup.”

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