The dining room at the Ava Lounge is small and intimate. A lone poet mutters his cryptic verse into a microphone in the corner of the room, which is full of old Ava Lounge faithfuls, as well as artists. People at the long, expansive bar turn their bodies toward the sound, one hand on their drinks. Most of the booths are occupied for the poetry night — one of the first events to take place at the lounge’s new space.
Owner Justin Strong has big plans for the Ava Lounge on North Craig Street. This is evident as he looks around the large, cluttered upstairs room, the sounds of slam poetry reverberating up the old staircase. When the room is ready, entertainment will take place there, not in the dining room. For now, it is his office space, with his computer sitting on a desk against a wall.
“We’re going to do a full kitchen, we’ll put a dumbwaiter right there,” Strong said, beckoning to a wall adjacent to the bar. “Then we’re going to get the catering. All the stuff we weren’t able to do in the old space, we can do here.”
For now, Ava Lounge is BYOB, but that is only until it receives a pending liquor license, which Strong says the lounge will get within the month.
The new Ava Lounge will essentially be a reincarnation of Quiet Storm during daytime hours, serving almost exclusively vegan dishes in a cafe environment. In the evenings, Ava Lounge will take over, keeping its former concept of nighttime entertainment and American fusion food. Although the two establishments shared nothing but similar clientele before Ava moved to Oakland, Strong’s new Ava Lounge is a unique collision of two worlds.
More than 16 years since he first inquired about opening a restaurant and night club in Oakland, Strong is back again. But this time, with an afternoon cafe featuring the cuisine of Quiet Storm, a vegan cafe which became a staple of Garfield’s recent renaissance before shuttering it’s doors in the neighborhood last fall, his business has a much broader appeal. The new location, which opened on Feb. 19, promises a new dynamic to the North Oakland dining and nightlife scene.
Take a walk down Forbes Avenue, where national brand names hang from signs and adorn windows. There are a few noted exceptions, such as the Original Hot Dog Shop, Red Oak Cafe and Forbes Gyro, but according to Strong, the nightlife in the neighborhood is a shadow of its former self.
When Strong first started coordinating events as a promoter and entertainment entrepreneur in Oakland in the late ’90s, the business landscape was quite different. Also the former owner of Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, Strong especially remembers the nightlife scene when Oakland was home to the nightclubs Graffiti and Laga.
“You had big college dance nights Thursdays and Saturdays. You had every single band or hip-hop act come through there,” Strong said.
Strong took up entrepreneurship soon after graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School in 1996 because he was “bored [and] needed something to do.”
“Most of my friends were leaving Pittsburgh and swearing never to come back. I was still embedded in [the city],” Strong said, referring to the family dry cleaning business where he also worked.
Oakland was the place he looked to start his first business, Shadow Lounge, but couldn’t find a space.
“Where Starbucks is now, I inquired about that. Where Jimmy John’s is now, I inquired about that,” Strong said.
Eventually, he opened Shadow Lounge in East Liberty in 2000. Strong expanded in 2005, adding The Blue Room and eventually Ava Lounge, which gradually began to outperform Shadow Lounge. The first Ava Lounge was on South Highland Avenue in East Liberty.
“It became this really cool bar and lounge, very deep, DJ-heavy, but we had a really successful Monday jazz night that ran for like six years,” Strong said of the Ava Lounge in East Liberty.
When Quiet Storm owner Jill MacDowell called Strong to tell him about an opening in the building that had formerly been the Luna Bar at 304 North Craig St., Strong jumped at the opportunity, deciding to move his most successful business venture down the road.
“The place feels very welcoming, definitely meant for a more mature crowd,” said E.J. Griffin, a customer who came to Ava Lounge for the Steel City Poetry Slam.
General Manager Anand Young credits the new place with “being able to bring about a creative menu that we can constantly evolve.” The food, he said, is the emphasis now.
“We have yet to tap into our full potential because we haven’t gotten to do the events we want to do,” Young said.
Strong said he can hardly wait until everything is ready and the college students starting coming through the door.
“The population as far as students, grad students, foreign-born students — it’s a gold mine here. Why aren’t people entertaining these folks?” he said. “We would like to develop a neighborhood place where people can kind of walk down to and enjoy themselves.”