Easy is Lakeshore's new cocktail bar. Easy is also Lakeshore's old cocktail bar, but the new Easy is very different indeed from the old Easy. I'd only been to the bar's previous incarnation once, but I remember it being dark and narrow, more like a gropey nightclub than the kind of place that serves rose-infused bourbon and angostura-flambéed kumquats. But the cocktail revolution marches on, and Easy Lounge is apparently its latest adherent, having undertaken an extensive, sixth-month transformation that added a kitchen, beefed up the cocktail menu, and required nearly gutting the place.
Usually, when places loudly advertise a remodel, they mean refurbished barstools or new flooring; in this case, they meant a near-complete personality transplant — replacing dark and constricted with bright and clean (but still narrow; personality transplants don't, evidently, cover physiognomy); slightly cheeseball hip-hop with old soul; plush black leather furniture with blonde wood tables and a copper-topped bar. The design is cute and picnic-y, with gingham menus, Mason-jar candleholders, new-looking wooden tables, walls painted primary colors, and clear attention to detail (purse hooks! heat lamps!). Altogether, it balances precariously on the edge of overwrought without ever tumbling in. There's a cactus-lined patio out back that's so pleasant it made me wish I smoked, and free, delicious, ever-so-slightly sweet popcorn on hand (soon, there'll be a full food menu, too, what owner Kolin Better describes as simple, low-stress classics; for my part, I did sample a very good polenta cube thingy). And while the bar program formerly felt, for the most part, like an afterthought, except for the legendary Saturday-afternoon farmers' market drink specials, it's now been classed-up considerably to include an extensive and creative, but not off-puttingly self-conscious, cocktail selection featuring drinks like the Love Spell ("Redemption High-Rye Bourbon, Orchard apricot liqueur, and homemade fruitcake bitters," $9) and the Mad Hatter ("Sailor Jerry rum, shaken with golden raisin purée and carrot juice, topped with spicy ginger soda," $10).
The impetus for all this, according to Better, was to refocus Easy as a neighborhood bar — which was the original goal when he and his wife bought it several years ago, partly because they themselves had had trouble finding good places to grab a drink in the area. This was around 2001, and back then, Better said, your only options in the area were dives and pool halls. Easy was to be a low-maintenance neighborhood bar, and it quickly gained a following with its farmers' market cocktails (aka the greatest excuse Oakland has ever had for daytime drinking). But they also hired DJs at night, which gave the place a lounegy, dancey, Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde vibe after dark — not necessarily a bad thing, just not what they'd wanted.
The new Easy, on the other hand, makes it all but impossible to dance, with wide picnic tables lining one wall and an obtrusive kitchen on the other. Between them, the space is traversable enough but doesn't offer the turning radius required for dancing. This is entirely on purpose, and it's actually pretty nice. Easy isn't trying to have their cake and it too, or jump on the bar-lounge-nightclub hybrid train, or become the HOT NEW CLUB!!!! — and in that sense, it is nothing if not self-assured in its rediscovered identity. The vibe is quiet, the dress code apparently plaid, and the drink prices — falling within the increasingly standard $9 to $12 range — are functionally prohibitive of out-of-control drunkenness. And while the old Easy Lounge had a definite pick-up bar quality to it, suffice it to say there's no meat at this market. This isn't the place to get name-forgettingly shmammered and make out with a stranger on a Saturday night. It is, however, well-lit, well-mannered, and sure to be well-loved, a perfect place for an after-work drink or a quiet night out in the rare bar where you can actually see and hear your interlocutors. "Easy" about covers it.