From the moment you step inside Casa, your eye naturally scans the new dimly lit surroundings searching for any hint of Avalon Bar--the legendary punk rock dive that inhabited the space up until last July. But 20 bucks says no matter how many years you spent ordering brown bag specials at the bar or moshing to scrappy garage bands, the first time you look around, it'll be as if you've stumbled in for the very first time. And that's exactly the way new owners Roland Barrera and Marty Kish want it.
Thanks to their vision to turn the longtime local landmark into a posh, laid back speakeasy, the quest to begin a new chapter in the bar's history has officially begun--to the celebration and chagrin of many who have a strong opinion about the change. Of course, like any new business, all that really matters is that people are talking about it.
The bar's makeover has actually spent a long time in the making. Barrera, a former pro snowboarder, met Kish over a decade ago. Years later, he spent time with Kish in Anglet, France, and became enamored with Baroque architecture. Barrera's background in design and nightlife coupled with his overseas inspiration helped form the concept of Casa, which blends a French and Spanish inspired interior with a 1930's speakeasy attitude.
"I wanted it to feel like you were in a speakeasy in New York," says Barrera. "Or like you were in someone's rich grandfather's chateau, who happened to leave and give you the keys for the weekend." It's quite different from the Avalon days, which was more like a grandpa letting you borrow his storage warehouse to throw an indoor kegger.
Embossed black walls, crown molding, wrought iron barstools and soft lighting create an authentic throwback atmosphere. But don't expect to just walk through the door unannounced and check out the newly refurbished bar, the Casa team takes exclusivity very seriously. In true speakeasy fashion, patrons gain entrance by obtaining a nightly password. The password is handed down by word of mouth or by visiting Casa's bare-boned website.
The conceptual shift in the bar sparked conversation, generally positive but not without a margin of cynicism. The hike in drink prices for craft cocktails coupled with the strict door policies had some locals crying foul. Where do the owners stand on devout Avalon patron's initial skepticism? Kish and Barrera are standing by their decision to reinvent the location. Casa caters to a crowd seeking an elevated nightlife experience, which Barrera hopes to achieve by uniting a community of like-minded people.
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"Avalon was great for 12 years, but it was beer and wine," says Kish. "Having the [liquor] license, the entertainment, serving craft cocktails, it all changed the aesthetic massively. Some people were upset about the price. We all agreed it's still less than you're going to pay down at the [Balboa] peninsula by a dollar or two... We're trying to offer something unique without driving to LA."
Live music factors into the mood as well, with October featuring a Friday night pianist residency and Tuesday nights with The Ultimate Bear Hug. Finishing touches like wall lamps pulled from a 1930's Palm Springs hotel flicker between framed mirrors, demonstrating the care and time taken to set the tone of bar. Barrera notes that the speakeasy continues to experience a steady flow of traffic, and provides an experience that echoes big city speakeasies. The owners are working to create a personalized experience and establish a long-term, fluid groove.
"It's too easy to do something modern. It's challenging to take the budget you have and try to make something that's culturally diverse," Barrera says. "It's about a quality and premium situation. You can't cater to the masses and maintain quality."