Peter Van Kleef

Club to Honor Oakland Uptown Legend Peter Van Kleef Friday, November 20th, 2015

Walt Comisky

Walt Comisky

Club Social Director

Members of the Club will be meeting at Peter’s bar, Café Van Kleef’s, at 7 pm on Friday, November 20th, 2015. The R&B/Soul performer, Cold Sol, will start at 9:30 pm. The Hellcats Wednesday Team will then be playing at the nearby Oakland Ice Center at 11 pm.

Club Members, please RSVP for this event.

Peter Van Kleef, Oakland bar owner, dies at 65
By David DeBolt <>

It has been said Peter Van Kleef had a story for each of the eclectic items packing the walls of his bar and cafe on Telegraph Avenue.

The boxing gloves supposedly worn by Muhammad Ali. The head of a water buffalo killed by Gary Cooper while on safari with Ernest Hemingway.

These tales told convincingly by Van Kleef to patrons downing another greyhound, his bar’s signature drink, were all part of the mystique of Cafe Van Kleef. Walking into the watering hole, one friend said, is like stepping inside the mind of Van Kleef.

On Tuesday, it was friends and patrons doing the talking, swapping stories about their beloved bar owner who died at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek about 4 a.m. at the age of 65. The cause was liver and kidney failure, his relatives said.

“He brought magic and conviviality to Uptown Oakland at a time when many doubted the city’s possibilities,” said Gil Duran, a regular who has worked as a press secretary for Jerry Brown during Brown’s time as mayor of Oakland and state governor. “Long before The New York Times discovered the delta of Telegraph and Broadway, there was this crazy Dutchman squeezing grapefruits into gin, telling stories late into the night and letting us all rest inside of his imagination for a while.”

To begin to tell the story of Van Kleef, one would have to flip through the archives of the Oakland Tribune to Oct. 1, 1956. On the front page was a story of the city’s newest immigrants, the Van Kleef family and its five children who arrived from Rotterdam, Holland.

The family settled in Oakland and later moved to El Sobrante. At 18 in 1969, Van Kleef’s family dropped him off on University Avenue in Berkeley and “with just a backpack and a thumb he hitchhiked his way across the U.S.,” before venturing overseas, his sister Florence Van Kleef said Tuesday.

He made a surprise visit to his grandparent’s house in Holland, lived in a friend’s apartment in Paris, slept in caves in Morocco, and ended up broke in Thailand, sleeping on a bench until he could get a Merchant Marine card and work his way back home, his sister said.

She remembers the day he walked back into the family’s East Bay home with two strangers and a “hippie van.”

“Here he comes looking like Jesus Christ,” she said. “That was Peter. Peter was the wanderer.”

Van Kleef later opened the Rio Theater on Parker Avenue in Rodeo, and taught English in Japan before eventually returning to Oakland in the early 2000s to open his own cafe and art gallery, she said.

The dimly lit bar, with its cluttered walls and high ceiling, may look like it’s been there 100 years, but it came to be in 2004 at the urging of others wanting a neighborhood bar downtown. His sister said he afforded the liquor license by selling two paintings by actor Anthony Quinn, donated to Van Kleef from a friend.

Still, this was Uptown before there was an Uptown, before the Fox Theater reopened, and restaurants and bars dotted Telegraph and Broadway from City Hall to 27th Street. This was the Uptown of where, as Van Kleef reportedly used to say, “you could run down the street naked and no one would see you.”

To help his friend survive in the emerging neighborhood, developer Phil Tagami and others agreed to buy the bar a round once a week. Tagami, who renovated the Fox Theater, bought a round or two Tuesday.

“He was really a pioneer on Telegraph Avenue when there was no where to go,” Tagami said.

“In the eyes of many people, Peter was the godfather of the Uptown Oakland renaissance,” Duran said.

Cafe Van Kleef, under his leadership, was soon a spot that could lure musicians and artists to cross the bridge from San Francisco, and where customers ranged from homeless people whom Van Kleef had befriended and then-Mayor Jerry Brown, also a friend.

Brown and Van Kleef had an ongoing debate about the viability of having a hot dog machine behind the bar, Duran said. The mayor favored a machine; Van Kleef did not.

Part of his legacy can be seen at Make Westing, a newer bar a few blocks away on Telegraph, where there’s a safe in the bar Van Kleef bought but for which he had no room.

“That’s the way Peter was,” said friend Steve Snider, district manager of Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt-Uptown District Associations. “The inside of Van Kleef’s was very much like the inside of Peter’s mind.”

Tagami opened Cafe Van Kleef’s Tuesday and bought rounds for the entire bar for more than an hour as about 100 regulars gathered to reminisce and retell the owner’s long-winded jokes.

Among other things, he will be known as a man who favored sleeveless black shirts, puffed on Parliament cigarettes, and he loved Frank Sinatra, Eddie Money and the Rolling Stones, Duran said. His wife, Cindy Reeves, was “his rock,” he said.

Van Kleef is survived by his wife, his brother Ron Van Kleef of Oregon, sister Gerda Mena of Pittsburg, Marja Van Kleef of Placerville, Florence Van Kleef of Fremont and five nieces and nephews. He is preceded in death by his sister Johanna Van Kleef and his parents, Elisabeth and Gerrit Van Kleef.

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