The Alley piano bar in Oakland
|Current owner(s)||Jackie Simpkins|
|Street address||3325 Grand Avenue|
The Alley is a restaurant and piano bar located in the Lake Merritt neighborhood of Oakland, California, in the United States. It is known for its nightly singing by patrons who take the microphone accompanied live by a live pianist who also sings.
The Alley is one of the last remaining Oakland piano bars. It was founded in 1933. Most of the previous piano bars closed upwards of thirty years ago. The bar looks like a saloon or 1920s alleyway with wood shingles and windows in the interior. Writer Kimberly Chun has described the interior as being designed by "a drunken Walt Disney". It has booths throughout it similar to those found at a diner. Approximately 40,000 to 50,000 business cards from visitors are displayed all over the walls, attached with staples. Business cards from Jerry Brown and Gregg Allman can be found. Dinner, which is served nightly, focuses on American cuisine such as steaks and burgers. An average steak dinner costs around $10. A piano is located past the main bar surrounded by a lacquered wood bar. Twelve seats sit at the bar and a pianist sits on the far end. Songbooks and microphones also rest on the bar. They primarily play songs from the Great American Songbook.
The bar used to be owned by Jody Kerr, who owned it from the 1940s until her death in 1995. Kerr's relative Jackie Simpkins owns the bar today. When she became the owner she wanted to remove the business cards, but the regular bar guests protested. In order to keep in compliance with the fire code, the bar sprays the business cards with fire retardant. In 2010, an apartment next to The Alley caught on fire. The fire destroyed the apartment but did not spread to the bar.
Pianist and singer Rod Dibble performed nightly at the bar until his death in December 2017. Visitors to the bar could sing solos accompanied by Dibble. He started playing piano in 1938 when he was six years of age. He performed at The Alley for over fifty years starting in 1960. Dibble walked to practice ten miles every day. He often practiced at the Claremont Resort or the Berkeley Marina. When he practiced, he played in 10-minute increments and learned one new song a week. He knew more than 4,000 songs by heart and changed the key based on the participating singer. San Francisco Chronicle writer Peter Hartlaub describes Dibble's voice as a mix of "Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits on the raspy spectrum." He played a Baldwin piano. When a participating singer did exceptionally well Dibble ringed a cowbell in their honor. When a participating singer made his or her debut at singing at The Alley, Dibble ringed a much smaller bell in honor of the singer being an "Alley Virgin" regardless of whether the singer did exceptionally well. In the 1980s, Dibble accepted a recurring request, providing "frontier-style" incidental piano accompaniment to the poem "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", recited by "Tex", a regular patron who said he was a Texas Ranger.
Dibble was married, had two children and four grandchildren. He lived in Berkeley. When asked if he would ever retire, Dibble stated "I'll never retire, I'll be very happy to die right behind this piano here."
The Alley has been mentioned in travel and restaurant guides to Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. The book, GrassRoutes Travel Guide to Oakland: The Soul of the City Next Door, said of The Alley that it was "an old-time alternative to karaoke" and that it represented "Oakland at its friendliest." The bar attracted "a wacky mix of hams and crooners", said the Lonely Planet, and there were no beers on draft but the mixed drinks were "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 best dive bars, the group including Smitty's, a local bar several doors up the street from The Alley.
- Hartlaub, Peter (February 11, 2011). "Piano man Rod Dibble's got 'em feeling all right". Entertainment. SF Gate. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- Chun, Kimberley (5 Feb 1999). "The Alley Piano Bar & Restaurant". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- "The Alley". East Bay Express. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- Elmusa, Karmah (April 12, 2012). "Local filmmakers premiere their work at Oakland International Film Festival". OaklandNorth. Retrieved June 6, 2012.
- Abraham, Zennie. "The Alley Oakland and the apartment fire next door". City Brights. SFGate. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
- Lopez, Alan (April 30, 2010). "Pianist plays Oakland bar for 50 years". Oakland Tribune. Retrieved June 7, 2012.
- "Just Don't Call Him the 'Piano Man', Meet Rod Dibble, One of the Bay Area's Last Ivory-Ticklers". Contra Costa Times. June 12, 2005. Retrieved June 7, 2012.
- Newhouse, Dave (February 18, 2007). "Pianist Plays On, and On and On". Oakland Tribune. Retrieved June 7, 2012.
- Powers, Madelon (1999). Faces Along the Bar: Lore and Order in the Workingman's Saloon, 1870-1920. University of Chicago Press. p. 290. ISBN 0226677699.
- Bartlett, Serena (2007). GrassRoutes Travel Guide to Oakland: The Soul of the City Next Door. GrassRoutes. p. 136. ISBN 0979146208.
- Bing, Alison; Vlahides, John A. (2010). San Francisco (7 ed.). Lonely Planet. p. 272. ISBN 1741791685.
- Dickey, Jeff; Rough Guides (2003). Rough Guide to California (7 ed.). Rough Guides. p. 614. ISBN 184353049X.
- Rough Guides (2011). Rough Guide to California. Penguin. p. 523. ISBN 140538302X.
- Dayton, Todd (2009). San Francisco's Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the City by the Bay. Ig Publishing. p. 158. ISBN 097031258X.