Saturday Night at the Blue Beet

Illustration by Heather SwaimDorothy Parker had her writer's roundtable at the Algonquin; DiMaggio and Sinatra hid from their fans at Toots Shor's; Hemingway picked fights at Sloppy Joe's; Wild Bill Hickock got shot at Sweeney's Silver Dollar Saloon. Most of us are just working people, but we, too, have places we call our own. I claim the Blue Beet Cafť at Newport Beach's McFadden Square.

It's where I go to relax—sometimes with my pals, sometimes next to a beautiful girl, most of the time not. Quiet or crowded, this is my place.

Tonight, it'll be crowded. I arrive around 8 p.m., an hour before they start charging a $5 cover. At the moment, no one's standing outside the 89-year-old brick walls. But in just a couple of hours, scores of beautiful people will line up outside this door, out for a night of drinking and dancing and flirting with other beautiful people.

Another Saturday night.

9:03 p.m.
Photo by Jeanne Rice

"Volare" is playing through the bar as a good crowd mills amid the white Christmas lights and ornamental holly strung over the bar. It's still early and quiet enough to hear a woman with a brutal Joisey City accent regale three guys about "numbnuts" this and "jackass" that over steaks. Not so quiet as some nights, when a customer might find the bartender sitting at the bar, reading the sports page. The customers tonight are mostly folks out for dinner or a couple of belts after work. In an hour, they'll be gone.

"Game time," says John Arata, the Beet's manager tonight. He's behind the bar with Stacy McBride, who's also a substitute high school teacher.

A former yacht club waiter and bartender, John dreams of one day running his own bar. He came to the Beet when it changed hands in 1998. He was a utility guy—serving food, tending bar, whatever was needed.

"I took the shifts nobody wanted," he says. "Day shifts, every crap shift there was."

John knows when to change the fruit tray and when it's time to get rid of a couple of drunks. He can also tell when it's time to order more vodka and when it's time to cut someone off.

It may be "game time," but some of the players are still warming up. Brent Baker, the Beet's flirtatious, 30-year-old bartender, and Chris Harger, a six-foot-10-inch security guard, are eating. Soon Harger and three other guys will begin carding customers and standing watch throughout the restaurant. It doesn't take long to finish dinner.

"Well, I'm looking forward to five hours on my feet," Chris says.

"Yeah," says Brent, "I just want to sleep now."

"Why do you think I've had three cups of joe?" says Chris.

It's 9 p.m., and as Brent settles in behind the bar, Chris and the rest of his security detail heads to the bar.

"I've got to take the chair," he tells a customer sitting at the far end of the bar, the end closest to the restrooms and the stage. The place will get so crowded soon that the dozen bar chairs need to go outside. And because the chairs are usually occupied, Chris tends to meet with resistance.

"People give me trouble all the time," he says. "They'll say things like, 'This is the last time I'm coming here.' 'Whatever,' I tell them. 'I still need the chair.'"

10:18 p.m.
Photo by Jeanne Rice

A few minutes later, Gloria walks in, saying nothing as she weaves through the crowd, her gray hair tied back with its usual translucent black bow. Without acknowledging anyone, she takes a seat near the stage. A few moments after Gloria sits, on cue, waitress Betty Browne brings her a glass of iced orange juice.

A huge jazz fan, Gloria says she used to watch Count Basie in the '50s, but she listens to just about all the live bands that play at the Beet, including tonight's—a new band that plays Elvis and Chuck Berry covers. Once, when one guitarist could play only briefly with a jazz group because of an injured wrist, Gloria took his hand and applied what she called "a healing touch." The musician described the gesture as "nice" and "real sincere" but hesitated to call it "helpful."

Tonight, like every night, she's brought her maracas.

Watching Gloria from the end of the bar, Mark [not his real name] takes another sip from his cocktail. Waiting for friends, he glances at the cell phone sitting next to his glass.

"There aren't any good places to hang out in Tustin," says Mark. "But I love this place. It's really comfortable. Lots of beautiful women, too."

Mark takes another sip. He talks a little about his job, but he really wants to discuss his recent DUI arrest.

"I don't think MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] has done a lot of good," he says. "I think prosecuting first-time DUIs when nothing happens is a mistake."

Mark finishes his drink, places the empty glass at the edge of the bar and calls for another. Before he gets a new one, Aucencio Costilla materializes behind the bar and scoops up the empty glass. He adds it to a half-dozen other pint and cocktail glasses he has lined up at the center of the bar.

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