Oh, Sid's! Remembering the legendary owner of Old Newport's much-missed steakhouse
I wish I would have met Sid Soffer.
I'm not saying we would have hit it off; it might have been similar to matter and anti-matter colliding for all I know. It could have resulted in a Newport Beach brawl that would have spilled out onto Old Newport Road and gone down in the annals of drunken OC pugilism, trumping even the Duke's whiskey-fueled exploits at the Balboa Bay Club. I'd like to think we would have been friends, though, but that's because I have a lot of respect for him and the way he did things. I also like what he stood for.
Sid's Steakhouse is all but a memory now, held in esteem by those who were fortunate enough to make it there. The building still stands on Old Newport Road, but it's akin to a haunted house. I got a peek inside the heavily padlocked property several years ago, and believe me, it's frozen in time like Pompeii in there. Nearly abandoned, it holds its lonely vigil next to the shiny new medical buildings springing up to support the Hoag Hospital complex. Sid bought the then-undervalued property when Bill Lindley ran it as Whiskey Bills (the sign is still up). Apparently, Bill didn't like the terms of his new rental agreement, so Sid took over the operation. Thus was born Sid's Steakhouse.
Sid was a maverick by anyone's standards, for sure, locking horns with local government on a constant basis. A small-government guy, he just wanted to be left the fuck alone. He was a vocal regular at Costa Mesa and Newport Beach city council meetings. When the two cities began holding their meetings on the same night—in order to spare them his presence at one of them, no doubt—he rushed from one to the other just to vex them. To this day, the three-minute-maximum speaking time at the Costa Mesa proceedings is rumored to have been enacted because of him. Toward the end of his residency in OC, an otherwise-innocuous difference of opinion over a few parked cars turned into a personal grudge match that landed Sid a bench warrant and a one-way trip as a fugitive to Las Vegas—but he always promised to return. From there, he ran his restaurant by remote control, with video cameras monitoring the comings and goings of his employees.
His rebel nature extended to how he ran Sid's. Change was given in $2 bills and $1 coins (a leftover Vegas habit). No ketchup. No salt and pepper. Servers were instructed to answer queries for directions by saying, "We're at 445 N. Newport; if you can't find it, you didn't want to hard enough."
During the week, it was a mix of longtime regulars and "confused first-timers," as one former server put it; weekend nights were packed. The drinks were stiff; the bar could get so busy it would run out of ice. The epic back bar reportedly came around the Horn during the 1800s and ended up in a saloon in Cripple Creek, Colorado, before making its way to Newport Beach. A flamenco guitarist was often in the corner. The food at Sid's was great—super-basic but great. The amazing baseball-cut top sirloin (still the best I've ever had) and other steaks were served on hot metal plates with candied carrots and mashed potatoes, no substitutions. I liked the fact Sid wasn't trying to gouge anyone or pretend to be someone he was not. And everyone was treated the same, from Newport Beach bluebloods to mangy local surfers—he didn't care where you came from; nobody got special treatment. He always paid his chefs well and got the best guys from Five Crowns, working on their days off.
I've heard Sid was a tough boss (one bearing a striking resemblance to Dos Equis beer's "Most Interesting Man In the World"), as well as a complex guy. Even though he was volatile, confrontational and in possession of a quick temper, he was loved by and had the loyalty of many employees, some of whom quit and came back over and over. A longtime bartender said he walked at least 45 times but always returned when Sid needed him. He was also a great lover and supporter of music, starting when he ran the legendary Café Frankenstein in Laguna during the end of the Beat Generation era before opening the Blue Beet, the just-as-legendary steakhouse that still stands today.
What I respect about Sid the most is he realized restaurant victory or defeat is measured in pennies, not dollars. He called it "finding the whey." Whey is a byproduct of cheese manufacture, either discarded or used for other purposes. "Finding the whey" meant finding the free money, making a buck off something you don't have to pay for. He saved the trimmings from prepping steaks to utilize in his weekly specials, such as beef grenadine ($2.50 per plate at the time) and his amazing stroganoff.
Sid cared (a lot!), but it was "his football," as he would put it. In other words, his ball, his game. What will become of the Sid's Steakhouse legacy? He passed away in 2007 in Las Vegas, living in self-imposed exile, never getting a chance to make a gleeful return to Zooport and thumb his nose at John Law one more time. Well, the property has been in limbo for a long time and I'm not at liberty to discuss what I do know. Let's just say Sid did it right, and regardless of the property's outcome, I wouldn't change a thing—past, present or future.
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