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Oscar Michel of Tacos Oscar stands on the outdoor patio behind a row of cacti.

How Laughs Became a Lifeline for These Bay Area Restaurants and Bars

Stand-up comedians and Bay Area restaurant and bar owners became unlikely bedfellows in the pandemic era

Oscar Michel of Tacos Oscar.
| Patricia Chang

On a Wednesday night at Oakland’s Low Bar, diners may hear echoes of hushed laughter and sporadic applause floating through the walls. That’s because the popular Chicano dining and drinking destination in downtown Oakland has been hosting a regular comedy night, the Lowdown Comedy Show, in its private dining room since the beginning of June. Guests can order food and drinks at the bar and risk snorting them out as local comedians make them laugh.

“People seem pretty stoked that they can eat oysters and burgers and drink cocktails while watching live stand-up comedy,” Low Bar chef and co-owner Matt Meyer says. The performance space, which is usually used for private events on the weekends, seats 40 people, making it perfect for an intimate comedy night. The night’s performers split the revenue from the ticket sales: $10 a head.

Around the Bay Area, this formula has been repeating itself in recent months — a ticketed comedy show, food and drink, and lots of fun — at venues outside of traditional comedy clubs. Regular, weekly, or biweekly comedy nights have popped up at Tacos Oscar, also in Oakland; Hawker Fare in San Francisco; and even San Mateo boba shop Bobabia. The electrifying mix of good food, high-quality drinks, and punchlines is timely and practical, both comedians and restaurateurs say. Business owners love the extra food and drink sales, and the fact that otherwise empty spaces get utilized on slow nights. Comedians love the chance to accompany their sets with good food — and the fact they get to keep the money from ticket sales, which isn’t often the case at comedy clubs.

“Comedy clubs tend to use a door revenue-split,” says Jordan Thewlis, who, alongside Jeff Dean and Hayley Beacon, is partially responsible for the growing popularity of the unlikely combination. The three started comedy nights at Tacos Oscar in January 2020 and have been performing a show called Deadass Comedy at the popular outdoor hamburger spot Lovely’s since November 2021. Tacos Oscar was a strategic choice of venue during the early days of the pandemic, since the performance space is outside. “What was nice about the pandemic was that it really made people value live events and community after going so long without having them,” Thewlis says.

There’s also a different vibe to the whole thing, he says. “If you’re running a show at a comedy club, you’re essentially competing with every other show happening at that club,” he says. “At a restaurant, particularly restaurants with strong social media followings, when they announce a show, their regulars are excited to check out what’s going on at the venue they already know and love.” Plus, comedy fans show up as well. “We also have a following, so we bring a whole new crop of people in the door,” Thewlis says. As Thewlis points out, comedy clubs aren’t generally known for having the best food, since the performers are the main focus. “Running a top-notch restaurant as well is rare,” he says. Why not try your brand-new set in front of happy, sated people whose tables are filled with crudos and cocktails?

Business owners value the convivial atmosphere and a chance to mix things up, especially given the rough couple of years the restaurant and bar industry has endured. For Tacos Oscar owner Oscar Michel, comedy nights are mostly about a fun way to utilize the space when the restaurant would otherwise be closed. There are occasional food pop-ups during the shows, such as Tacos Sincero or Xulo, and the evenings are BYOB. “It’s not really about the money at all. Just a place to gather and have some laughs,” Michel says. “I’ve always preferred catching a comedy or music show at a laundromat, a park, someone’s garage, a bar, or anywhere that’s not a comedy club.”

Matthew Meyer and Daniel Paez.
Matthew Meyer and Daniel Paez of Low Bar.
Kait Miller Photography

For other restaurants, however, comedy nights have been a huge post-pandemic lifeline. Unlike a musical performance, comedy shows are relatively quiet, don’t require stellar acoustics, and end relatively early — all of which makes them a perfect side hustle, of sorts, for restaurants. But not without caveats. “We’re trying our best to fill the space because we need the business,” says a general manager at a Bay Area restaurant, who preferred to stay anonymous because the venue doesn’t have a Limited Live Performance License.

According to San Francisco County, this permit is required for live performances in establishments whose primary use is not entertainment, like a restaurant. But the application process takes time. “When we don’t have comedy, it’s like night to day — it increases food sales, and brings people to the restaurant that have never tried the food,” says the restaurant’s GM. “We’re making $4,000 extra a month.”

On the other side of the Bay Bridge, things look brighter. There, the emerging union of comedy and good food is a perfect example of collaboration that benefits both sides without taking anything away. “Small independent comedy shows like this wouldn’t exist if restaurants were charging the hosts for their space,” says Low Bar’s Meyer. “We’re happy to trade our space for some laughs.”

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