Strolling through the eastern hub of Seaport Village, it’s hard to miss the stout, wooden captain standing guard at the entrance to the Oslo Sardine Bar.
Artist-in-residence and proprietor, Max Daily throws a buoy around the greeter’s neck before opening the doors to his ongoing Thursday night popup where tinned fish service runs from $8 to $15 dollars for a can of sardines in olive oil, tomato, lemon, mustard, or even jalapeno sauce.
Other small fish make appearances as well, including mackerel, octopus, and squid, collected from various ports around the world. The stars of the bar are Norwegian King Oslo Sardines, currently canned in Poland.
Daily proudly pops open tins and serves them with a side of saltine crackers and a choice of sparkling water and juices.
The interior of the Oslo Bar morphs weekly along with the menu, but food is not the main draw at Oslo Sardine Bar.
As a brand ambassador, Daily’s eclectic displays include rare King Oslo cans. Inspect the label on a can perched inside a small, plexiglass case; it reads: A Tribute to the Men and Women of the Davanger Sardine Cannery, a nod to the last Norwegian sardine cannery, founded in 1931, which closed twelve years ago. Daily is saving a can of their antiqued fish for a special occasion.
Collecting vintage tinned fish is akin to collecting wine in Europe (France especially), where connoisseurs lovingly turn the tins on a regular basis to preserve the contents for years after their expiration date.
It’s all in the details, so look closely around the bar for other miniature treasures, like the custom sardine boxes that Daily illustrates with a figure fashioned after his Great Uncle Oslo. Small dioramas glow from in-sets around the bar.
One illuminates a tiny skier. Daily suggests that it may be Shackleton, the Arctic Explorer. Sea Monkeys are set to hatch in another accompanied by their own audio. Inspect the twin captain lamps, gifts from the Little Fishing Canning Coalition, and don’t miss the bucket zipline that Daily uses to reel tins from one side of the bar to the other.
Crouch to enter a small cabin door between the serving bars and you’ll come face to face with a life-size Electric Shark. (Okay, but electric? You might ask. No spoilers here.)
Most Thursdays musician Chum (as in Bucket of) crouches over a tiny piano wearing dark glasses and adds improvised jazz riffs to the soundtrack of old ship noises coming from the turntable behind the bar. Meanwhile, another Oslo habitué, Ray Lawson, greets guests and serves sardines decked out in a crisp white yachting uniform festooned with gold buttons.
It is spectacle at its finest. And some might say, fate.
Max Daily, a 2019 winner of the San Diego Art prize for his visual art and performance pieces, has long anchor lines to San Diego and canned fish.
Decades ago, his grandmother, Maggie, worked a cannery line in Barrio Logan. At lunchtime on paydays, she’d roll a cooler of beer and dented tuna cans to the Weber Bread Factory where she’d spread bread slices with mayonnaise and canned tuna. She sold the sandwiches to workers, including Daily’s great uncle, Oswald.
Long after Weber Bread moved on, the Logan Heights factory was reconfigured as the Bread and Salt art and event space. There, inside the tiny ‘No Exit’ gallery, Daily crafted his first local production of the Oslo Sardine Bar.
The idea was even longer in the making. He’s not sure if his Sardine Bar concept manifested while steering the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland, but the idea of a more interactive production floated to the surface when Daily worked as a merchant marine on a Danish flagged freighter. Bored during a cross ocean route, Daily created a makeshift bar in a broom closet. Adding beats from a Harry Belafonte record, a backgammon board, and emergency rations of sardines, he opened a portal for a breeze, and the first Oslo bar was born.
Many ask if Daily, a trained puppeteer, has created a popup restaurant or performance art piece at the Seaport. For now, it’s a bit of both.
The longevity of the Sardine Bar depends on renovations at Seaport Village, where a transformation is currently being negotiated between the Port of San Diego and developers.
In the meantime, the Village offers opportunities for artists, food vendors, and performers, like Daily. On Thursdays between 5pm and 8pm, live music played by local bands fills the air, Snake Oil Cocktail Company shakes cocktails, San Pasqual Winery pours wine, and South Norte Beer Company provides the brews. Various food vendors rotate weekly as the seafront area transforms into a public salon with guest talks and discussions, art, and history, all with an ocean focus. The Oslo fits right in, and Daily will be there every Thursday evening, at least through the end of the summer.
“I’ve been in the service industry my whole adult life,” Daily explained. “The only way I could see making it happen was to jump in from an artist and performance angle. Now, I’m ready to make it a ‘real’ place.”
Plans are underway for a brick and mortar version of The Oslo, complete with a beer license. The location is a mystery for the time being, but Daily hopes to launch by the end of 2020.
Visit The Oslo Sardine Bar
Seaport Village (Eastern Hub)
849 West Harbor Drive, Downtown