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Colonial Donuts, Oakland's late-night hot spot

Photo courtesy of umamimart.com

Colonial Donuts has been at 3318 Lakeshore Ave in Oakland since the 1970s. There used to be many other cafés that stayed open past 9pm, but these days Colonial is one of the only 24-hour establishments in the city. It’s become a bit of a hot spot. On any given weekend night, the place is packed. Local teenagers flock to Colonial for its freshly fried donuts. Young men that probably wouldn’t normally hang out together play competitive speed chess for hours on end. Mills College reporter paid a visit to the infamous donut shop and brought back this account.

It’s 10:30pm and I’m sitting at a small table at Colonial Donuts with a few of my friends. They’re here for moral support because this is my first radio piece and I’m nervous. There’s a man pacing back and forth shaking his head and muttering to himself. A group of guys that were playing chess are gathered outside the main entrance playing with a remote controlled helicopter. As I try to muster up enough courage to go talk to people, a group of excited teenage boys flock to my table.

“So my name’s Max,” says Max Becker. “And this is Travis,” he says, introducing Travis Neumann. The two are members of the band Emily’s Army, Becker explains. They come to Colonial Donuts a lot. “At least twice a weekend,” Becker confesses. They’re a little early tonight – the fresh donuts aren’t ready until about 11:30pm – so they’ll talk to people about their band while they wait.

Becker and Neumann say they’ve been coming to Colonial since as long as they can remember. Their reasoning is simple. “Everyone in their childhood loves donuts right?” Neumann asks rhetorically. “I love donuts,” Becker responds.

For anyone who has never been to Colonial Donuts, it has a history of crazy stuff happening there. That’s kind of what it’s known for.

“This one time I was here later – probably 12:30 or one – and people were playing chess and a guy lost a game of chess, picked up the whole chess board and threw the chess board across the restaurant, and stormed out of the room because he lost the game of chess,” Nuemann recounts over a maple bar.

Meanwhile, another character approaches the table and introduces himself. “My name is Edward Michael Louis. I’m 43 years old and I kinda screwed up my life a little bit,” he begins. “I am a 1997 California state chess champion, played in two U.S. Opens, and I am the strongest chess player at Colonial Donuts.” There’s more. “And I’m an alcoholic,” he adds. Then leaves abruptly – he very well may have been drunk – after wishing everyone a good night.

Then there is Matt, who is there with his girlfriend, Francis. They’ve been coming to Colonial once a year, on the exact same day, because that’s when they had their first date here three years ago.

Matt and Francis say they like to come here at night, usually after one in the morning. “But we gotta get up early tomorrow,” Matt explains, “so we’re here a little earlier. We did not expect such a large crowd. It’s pretty exciting this evening.”

When they first started dating, Matt and Francis were Colonial regulars. Francis remembers a man “who used to have, like, flies on his feet and it was really calloused and we would see him a lot. It was our first few romantic dates. We’d look over, and there they were, he would have them up on a stool.”

Mark, a painter, also has a history with Colonial Donuts. “I started coming here in 1976, when I was 20 years old” he says. “And I’m 56 now, so I’ve been coming here for, Jesus Christ, 35 years?”

Tonight Mark is there with his friend Dave, an East Bay native. Mark moved to the area to join a band. The two of them have been friends for several years. Mark says that, as far as he knows, Colonial Donuts has always been open 24 hours. He also says that the donuts have always been really good over the years. “They know how to make a donut. Somebody must have passed on the magic Colonial formula.”

Dave says nothing strange has ever happened to him here. He just sits and drinks his coffee and eats his donut. When it comes to the crazy stuff people see here, he just says, “This is Oakland, you know. It’s like crazy compared to what?”

Dave also says that he doesn’t understand why there are always so many kids in here. “It’s the colonial donuts – come on, don’t you have something better to do that come here on a Saturday night?” he wonders.

But maybe people don’t. Or maybe they have some sort of natural urge to congregate with strangers over sugar and caffeine in the wee hours of the night. 

Most would agree that the donuts at Colonial are nothing special, the coffee is pretty weak, the wallpaper is dirty and peeling, and the menu signs look like they haven’t changed since the place opened in the 70s. But none of that really matters because, if you live in Oakland, you come to Colonial. Maybe there really isn’t anywhere else to go. No matter which way you slice it, Colonial Donuts is Oakland’s late-night hot spot.

Crosscurrents Colonial Donuts