The idea for Mushin Sports Lounge started with a graduate school project. Then-student Babatunde Afolabi was tasked with creating a business that would “solve a problem in your community.” It was the early 2000s when the Warriors were terrible, Afolabi recounts, and “everybody was on the Lakers bandwagon.” He was looking for a sports bar that felt like a sports bar. “I saw Oakland as not having a sports bar, we had what is called a restaurant with TVs, and bars with TVs,” Afolabi says.
What evolved from those ideas is Oakland’s Mushin Sports Lounge. Forget your notions of what a sports bar typically is — perhaps a dive dripping in neon beer signs and sports team banners — and instead picture a lounge filled with plenty of TVs, concrete floors, smooth marble details, and tufted Chesterfield sofas. Mushin also sets itself apart by taking a page from high-end restaurants: groups can make table reservations for sports events, there’s a cocktail menu and a weekend brunch — even a membership for those looking for a more refined sports watching experience. “People don’t know what to think of us,” Afolabi says. “Are we a lounge? Are we a bar? Are we a sports bar? The ambiance, the decor, the presentation, the food, the cocktails … the presentation is at par with some fancy restaurants.”
Afolabi and his partners, Abidemi Afolabi and Kola Shobo, founded Mushin with an international audience in mind. In fact, one word Afolabi continuously mentions is “international” — it comes up when discussing the sports he wants playing on the TVs to the small details of the cocktail menu. He wants Mushin to broadcast the Warriors and Niners, of course, but Afolabi is emphatic about catering to a broader crowd. Formula 1, the Olympics, soccer, cricket, golf — everything is fair game. Afolabi, who immigrated from Nigeria at 21, considers himself an Oaklander more than 20 years later, and says Mushin is about celebrating the diversity of the city. “Oakland is dubbed to be one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and for me, it’s true,” Afolabi says. “As an African, I know that we need our space because [with] a lot of spaces that are created, you walk in and you feel like you’re not welcome.”
The cocktail menu continues the international theme; Afolabi doesn’t drink, but the Mushin team partnered with Oakland-based hospitality team Sequoia Gold to create its beverages. The menu incorporates spirits and ingredients, made with different countries in mind: the Tap Tap, for instance, is Mushin’s tribute to Haiti, featuring Saint Benevolence rum clairin and kafé anmè coffee liqueur (both produced in Haiti), paired with coconut cream, coconut water, falernum, and lime juice. The food menu is brief, with the usual bar fare such as wings, fries, and a couple of burgers — but zhuzhed up a bit; wings get kick from Thai chiles, fries come dusted with truffle flavor, and a chicken sandwich spots curry mayo. The weekend brunch menu, however, is where Mushin plays around the most. There’s a chicken and waffle dish featuring cajun-spiced fried chicken with a cinnamon molasses waffle and Gran Marnier glaze; the CocoElote, deep fried sweet corn ribs dressed in an arbol chili and lime aioli; and cornmeal pancakes served with a feta cheese and bacon crumble.
Afolabi and company also offer a membership program with a number of perks for an annual fee: members get first dibs on reserving space for themselves and a guest for any sporting or pay-per-view event; access to a back lounge dubbed “the Box,” which members can reserve with no minimum spending limit; and invites to quarterly members-only events. The membership, according to Afolabi, stemmed from wanting to host customers who hate the rigmarole of bar entry lines and holding seats for their party — instead, they have a guaranteed place they can watch the game. The membership currently costs $1,900 per year, and there’s a waitlist to join, but Afolabi will continue to add more perks as the lounge settles in.
Afolabi also says he doesn’t want Mushin to become a sweaty, too-crowded bar. Instead, he’d rather turn people away when the Mushin team considers the place “packed” — a 10-15 percent ratio of standing customers, he says — to avoid the effect of having to weave around people to get to the bar or the restrooms. “When it’s packed, service is shitty because the servers don’t get to you on time. Those are the little things that people are not paying attention to, that makes them frustrated about a place.”
He continues to have grand ideas for Mushin. Along with expanded hours, he plans to make the lounge a multi-functional space, creating a daytime pace where people can buy a pass and work on their laptop or have a meeting. He also hopes to expand the Mushin model into a Bay Area chain, naming places like Palo Alto or Castro Valley as potential locations. “We live in a society now that people don’t feel welcome when they go to places; it could be because of the way they look different from the staff, it could be the food,” Afolabi says. “I want people to come in and feel received, it doesn’t matter whatever they are.”
Mushin Sports Lounge (1814 Franklin Street, Suite 5G, Oakland) is open 4-10 p.m. Thursday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday, noon to 1 a.m. Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.