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By Mike Seeley
Photo by Matt OttoJudging from where we'd parked on a side street off El Camino Real, it appeared last Friday that perhaps Orange County Sheriff's Department officials had been justified in recently citing a number of San Clemente's beachside bars for noise-ordinance violations. Sure, we were on a quiet street, but we had to admit the drunken laughter and bad music were a little loud—and we couldn't even see the bar yet. So when we reached the main street, it was a little puzzling to see the culprit was a pizza house, not a bar. Then, glancing at the street sign, we realized our mistake: the bars in question were on South El Camino Real, not North.
Things weren't much different near the south 200 block, though. Passing by a Starbucks pumping Muzak through its outside speakers on our way to the Red Fox Lounge, we concluded that the three previous weeks of back-to-back, weekly citations had been freak coincidences. San Clemente sounded, after all, just like any other beachside town on a Friday night: fun.
Some buzzed patrons who'd walked down the street from Ole's, one of the block's three other bars, met us at the Red Fox door. "Heads up," said one of the patrons, addressing the doorman, "they just busted Ole's again for noise." Shaking his head with a sigh, the doorman checked our IDs and let us by. Once inside, we ordered some drinks and hit the fairly quiet juke, surprised when our first song selection was played straight away—at 11. On a Friday. Either the folks in San Clemente didn't know a good juke when they heard one, or something was very wrong.
As it turned out, it was the latter. After finishing our drink, we headed up to Ole's Tavern, where we met with "Spikey Mike," a longtime area resident and popular regular at the bars. He informed us Ole's had been cited twice that evening, with one citation given to the bar and another to the bartender.
Now, Ole's was "loud," we guess, but certainly not as loud as the pizza place and nowhere near as loud as your typical raucous bar. Still, city ordinances state that if the noise from an offending structure is audible from 25 feet away, it can be fined. Only it's a little tricky because if you were to, say, stand 25 feet directly in front of Ole's, not only would you be risking death by standing in the middle of El Camino Real, but you'd also be 25 feet in front of another, potentially offending bar—Duke's GriddleN' Grill.
Up until nearly a month ago, Mike was the resident DJ on Fridays and Saturdays at Duke's, which he claimed had been a fairly sleepy place on weekend nights until he stepped in and started spinning hip-hop and '80s music. That was at the beginning of May. Within a few weeks, Duke's was packed with a line out the door. They even hired a bouncer. As Mike remembered, it was the most action the area had seen in years.
After Duke's was slammed for not having a cabaret license—and the threat of noise citations rendered its entertainment license meaningless—Mike was out of a job, attendance at area bars dropped off, and the relentless noise citations had many San Clementians wondering what's next.
"I just don't get it," Mike said. "Any bar scene where you have a lot of people showing up, cops are going to be there. But how does the city expect to grow if people don't show up to keep the businesses running?"San Clemente City Council meets Tues., 7 p.m.; Ole's, the Red Fox Lounge, Duke's GriddleN' Grill and Goody's are all located near the 200 block of South El Camino Real, San Clemente.