Rich Man, Po Boy

In 10 years, Memphis has become the center of Orange County's hipperati universe

Photo by John GilhooleyThe Costa Mesa 500: it's kind of like theFortune 500, only with less fortune (except Paul Frank). And though at times membership has been considered both a slur and a badge of honor by members of Costa Mesa high society—depending on whom you are talking to or about—tonight it's just reality. Gathered under a rental tent outside Memphis Café for the restaurant/bar's 10th anniversary party is nearly every DJ, bar owner, restaurateur, photographer, publicist, waitress, bartender, promoter, writer, lead singer, financier, graphic designer, alleged graphic designer, Paul Frank employee, record-store clerk, chef, parents'-utility-room dweller and barfly who ever set foot in Costa Mesa's evolving nightlife scene during the past decade.

A projector trained on the tent ceiling repeats a two-minute cycle of snapshots of Memphis owners Dan Bradley, Jason Valdez and Diego Velasco in various stages of work and play. In one, Bradley toasts the camera with some employees; in another, Valdez giggles behind the turntables.

And yet, glancing around at the men of Memphis, it seems slightly irrelevant: there isn't much need for photographs when the trio is here in person. Bradley, dressed comfortably in dark blue jeans and an oxford shirt, stands off in the corner with a few friends, a slightly shy (or is it humble? Or careful?) and gracious host; Valdez, forever the face, sits on a couch on a makeshift smoking patio, relaxed in a three-piece pinstriped suit and smiling with barely contained, kid-in-a-candy-store excitement; and Velasco, trotting back and forth between the party and the kitchen, sweats through his soiled apron, the least visible of the three men but making things happen just the same.

"I've known club owners who drive fancy cars and are way above their clientele—it's about being better than other people," observes local DJ/Laguna Art Museum preparator Tim Schwab. "The thing about the Memphis guys is that they're just like one of us—only they opened a club. They're always so inviting. They greet every single person as they come through the door."

* * *

Ten years ago, Bradley, Velasco and formerpartner Andy Christenson, three friends who met while working at the Renaissance Café in Brea—manager, cook and waiter, respectively—maxed out their credit cards, sold their cars and opened Memphis Café on Aug. 18, 1995. The restaurant/bar sat on the edge of a Bristol Street property inside what was once a run-down hole-in-the-wall called the King's Inn. Motivated by the legacies of such clubs as Long Beach's Fender's Ballroom and Huntington Beach's Golden Bear—and inspired by his days as an art history undergrad at UCLA, where he studied the Italian design collective called Memphis—Bradley first contemplated a restaurant/venue as early as 1990, he says. But it wasn't until he saw the King's Inn property that his idea took shape.

"It was a condemned bar with tumbleweeds and people living in the patio and a toilet dumped out front," Bradley recalls. "But I saw the building, and architecturally it was perfect—this midcentury building from 1953 with a flat roof and clean lines. And that's when we made the jump."

With Memphis, Bradley, Velasco and Christenson were doing what aspiring businessmen always do: risking assets—including reputation—in the hopes of becoming an institution.

"I wasn't too scared—it's not like we had a lot to lose anyway," says Bradley. "But we definitely were on a shoestring budget, and the landlord was taking a real risk with us."

Still, it worked: today, more than a decade after opening, Memphis remains the go-to destination for any number of customers—Weekly writers with a hankering for Velasco's signature catfish po' boy; businessmen in search of a happy hour dirty martini; hungover nighthawks for whom 2:30 p.m. is an ideal time for a balanced Sunday breakfast of gumbo and mimosas—and always the pan-fried chicken. ("My girlfriend and I went to Memphis for dinner one night, and she wasn't even hungry," says Schwab. "I ordered the pan-fried chicken—you know, with the sauce and the greens—and she took one bite and said, 'It's so good, it's almost painful.'")

By 10 p.m., Memphis transforms into what is—for many people living in Costa Mesa and surrounding cities—the only bankable option for high-quality DJs and entertainment in an affordable, relaxed atmosphere. Whether it's Definitely Maybe—the bar's long-running, low-key Wednesday indie rock/whatever-with-beats night—or Souled Out—its Thursday-night dirty soul dance party—or White Collar—a packed-to-the-gills Saturday-night booze fest with everything from indie rock to hip-hop to '80s new wave—Memphis' consistent options—where you'll always know what crowd to expect and when to expect it—make for a near chokehold on the social lives of anyone who wants to drink and dance without worrying about cover charges, dress codes, VIP lists and valet parking—which is, it turns out, most of the rest of Costa Mesa.

"[The Memphis owners] have integrity," says Darren Crandell, a.k.a. DJ AM 180, one of the resident DJs at Definitely Maybe. "It's the only venue that gives back to people who like music."

* * *

If the mark of any institution is the hole its absence would leave, then it's not only difficult but frightening to picture life—specifically nightlife—without Memphis.

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