By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Kiera Wright-Ruiz
By Cleo Tobbi
"I love how quaint it is," says local promoter Ashley Eckenweiler, owner of the ACE Agency, which counts the OC Music Awards among its clients. She first visited La Cave with her grandfather, who would take the family to dine for special dinners. "It's got a really old-school feel to it. . . . I hope they never change the décor. Ever."
Nevertheless, change is inevitable, and it has slowly crept in—but never at the expense of La Cave's vibe. During the 1960s, women weren't employed as servers, only men. And customers were required to suit up in formalwear. "If you were not dressed appropriately, the maître d' sent you away," Palitz says. Valet parking was introduced, but the customers complained the first day, so the owner did away with the suits taking the keys. "That did not go over well," Palitz says with a humble laugh. "Our crowd like to park their own cars."
The biggest and most popular change, though, came soon after Palitz bought La Cave. He transformed the former Hi-Time Wine Cellar that is connected to the dining room into a lounge, incorporating live music to breathe new life into the place. Rock bands became part of the mix, notably James Iansiti's Owl TV, but Palitz really found his niche with jazz, and the main act became the Todd Oliver Quartet. "It was very New York, very hipster," he says. "The hipsters were just starting to come in."
Since then, acts ranging from local musicians the Ginger Baker Jr. Trio and Greg Topper to the Steelwells, Venus Infers and the Barstow Boyz have graced the stage. Even Gary Busey stopped in one night to belt out some Buddy Holly tunes and talk philosophy with the bartenders. The less-rowdy Justin Bieber popped in last year with Selena Gomez on his arm and joined singer/songwriter Ernie Halter on the mic; YouTube footage of the surprise visit quickly went viral.
The lounge's popularity grew, with rock bands, DJs and karaoke backed by a live band added to the mix for a weekly six nights of entertainment. Bartender David Scott started pouring drinks at La Cave in 1998, not long before the live music began. "I was taken aback," he says about his first glimpse at the décor. "I couldn't believe there were places such as this in Orange County. We've been around for 50 years, and we're still a popular secret. The steaks and seafood are absolutely delicious; the cocktails are done the right way. The entertainment is fresh, mostly local and a large variety. But it's mostly about the vibe. The feeling of coming down the elevator or walking down the stairs to enter La Cave—it's welcoming, it's authentic, and it's just cool."
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Scott began serving as La Cave's manager during the time when the nightlife following began to explode, when the restaurant became better known for its music scene than its food. Rock music was added on the last Saturday of the month and eventually every Tuesday, booked from 2002 to 2006 by Sean Sloan and Tim and Joe Schwab. The trio put the lounge on the hipster map, adding indie-rock cred to the mix thanks to popular nights called Swag Lamp and Revolver Project.
While the atmosphere was inviting, Sloan says, it was Palitz's and Scott's willingness to take chances on less-seasoned, local bands that appealed to him as a promoter. "La Cave was willing to give unknown—to them—promoters and bands a chance, provided you brought your own sound system, DJs, bands and did all the promotions," he says.
That sort of freedom gave way to some pretty memorable moments, Sloan recalls. The Bad Dudes and local band Mad Man Moon nearly turned La Cave into their own personal house party during their tenure, riling people into a frenzy as they climbed on tables to shake some legs. LA duo the Pity Party got down and dirty with vocalist Julie Edwards, who also plays drums and keys, belting out what Sloan calls "super, math-creep rock," flooring everyone. And the not-quite-German synth-pop duo the Gentlemen of Leisure—Costa Mesa locals Geoff Harrington and Curtis Mathewson's ridiculously androgynous take on the '80s—played a rare live show to a standing-room-only crowd. "That was the biggest-sounding, epic, arena-rock show stuffed into a tiny club," Sloan says.
Starting in August 2008, Ian Alexander (a.k.a. DJ Kedd Cook) and Brendan Thomas took over Wednesday nights. They booked international touring DJs such as Bag Raiders from Australia, Tiger and Woods from the U.K. and Italy, and Chicago's Lee Foss. "I traveled to New York two to three times per year from 2005 to 2009 and was always a fan of all the underground—literally underground—bars with a cool basement feel to them," Thomas says.
A regular during the Todd Oliver Quartet days, he jumped at the chance to take over the slot when the jazz kings ended their run. "I was given a four-week trial run," Thomas says, "and here we are four years later."
The karaoke night Cover Me Badd is returning this week. But despite the current reign of young blood at La Cave, it's still the old guard that remains the soul of the place, one that Palitz has never forsaken, much to the group's delight in an era in which the middle-aged and elderly keep finding the restaurants that appeal to them nearly gone. OC lounge legend Phil Shane is now one of La Cave's regular acts, performing the last Friday of each month. And on Monday nights, old and young alike slink into booths to hear David Kinwald's Frank Sinatra tribute.