"Hardest-working man in Newport Beach," Chris says.

First, Aucencio tosses out whatever lemon wedges are in the glasses. Then he dumps the glasses in the water-filled sink, scrubs each one and sets it to one side. When he's done, he distributes the glasses between each end of the bar. Then he places some of the pint glasses—still wet—in the cooler.

"I mean, when someone drives drunk and injures or kills someone," Mark continues, "then they should throw the book at him—but not make a big deal out of just driving drunk, especially the first offense. Then again, maybe I'm just biased."


10:58 p.m.
Photo by Jeanne Rice

Aucencio brings dark-blue coffee mugs to the sink, washes them and places them in a cupboard near the kitchen by a painted sign that reads, "Sid Ain't Here . . . Don't Ask."

Sid Soffer, the Beet's mercurial millionaire former owner, sold the restaurant in 1998 but still owns the building. He opened the Beet in 1960, rebuilt it after it burned in 1986, and then suddenly closed it in 1992 to concentrate on his new restaurant, Sid's Steakhouse. The Beet lay nearly derelict for three years. In 1995, just after fleeing to Vegas with sacks of cash from the steakhouse to avoid three months in jail for repeatedly violating building codes, Sid told his employees to plunder the Beet for its remaining booze.

Inside, the staff found food rotting on tables and in the freezer, long starved of electricity. When they told him the alcohol they found contained large amounts of rat droppings and fly eggs, Sid said to "filter it out."

They dumped it. The story is surely apocryphal—I'd love to see a rat so fastidious it could mount a bottle of merlot for its toilet or a fly so contrary to its nature that it would hatch its young in alcohol. But nobody is bothered by such inconsistencies because such a story is otherwise so consistent with Sid.


11:55 p.m.
Photo by Jeanne Rice

Aucencio finishes and heads into the kitchen, and John comes to the end of the bar where Brent is working. Brent is a couple of feet away, flirting with pretty girls. The place isn't crowded, so John doesn't care. He gets along with just about everyone.

There was one night, not a crowded night, when a drunk stumbled into Betty and caused a glass to fall and shatter. John, who'd been joking with friends, suddenly glared at the drunk as if the guy had disturbed his bar's delicate balance.

"Sometimes I hate being this tall," the six-foot-five bartender says. "I can see everything that goes on in this place. I can see them talking over there; I can see those guys goofing off over there. If I was short, then I wouldn't be able to see any of that."

John's actually not supposed to be managing tonight. That duty usually falls to his girlfriend, Frankie Leising, a tiny blonde who once worked as a flight attendant and played drums in the U.S. Army Reserve. Frankie always looks tired because she works so hard. She puts up the Christmas decorations. She waitresses, tends bar and makes sure everything works. Tonight, Frankie needs a break.

The bar's quiet—John figures maybe it's the Elvis and Chuck Berry cover band; the Blue Beet is usually home to the hits of the 1970s and '80s. But Gloria is on her feet, shaking her maracas.

John is pensive. "There are a lot of Christmas parties tonight," he offers. "But this place still has more people in it right now than any other place in Newport. You watch: at midnight, then we'll start to get crowded."

 

At midnight, Roger [not his real name] comes in and announces that he and his friends are "out whoring." A Beet regular, Roger is in his mid-20s. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt. He met a cute girl here a few weeks before and has since gone out with her. But tonight he's here with two of his pals, and they've "got a place on the sand, and we're looking for some girls to take back."

As John predicted, the Beet has gotten crowded, so crowded that Chris uses a Mag-Lite to illuminate a path along the bar.

People wind their way upstairs to the bar's second deck and a third level with an outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. On one side of the deck, Rupert is hanging out near the giant poster of Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. A native of Antigua, he sometimes teaches classes on meditation; the beach is his classroom. He spends his evenings walking the Newport peninsula with his Polaroid camera, selling souvenir photos for $6—half of which he says goes to the Feed the Children Fund. He has been doing that for 16 years.

On the other side of the deck is Gina Dortch, who's working a small green plastic bar with barely enough room for one bartender. Somehow, between taking orders, mixing drinks and making change, she finds time to dance to the music floating from the ground floor.

A few years ago, Gina was in the U.S. Air Force, serving as an air-traffic controller guiding aircraft—sometimes ones carrying nuclear weapons—into Florida's Homestead Air Force Base. As she's dancing to "Jailhouse Rock," a birthday group approaches. One of them asks for six Jäger shots, which she dutifully pours into tiny paper cups. As she does, two guys come in from the patio and stand next to the cash register.

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