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 Caf 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."
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Ten years ago, Bradley, Velasco and formerpartner Andy Christenson, three friends who met while working at the Renaissance Caf in Brea—manager, cook and waiter, respectively—maxed out their credit cards, sold their cars and opened Memphis Caf 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."
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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.
And, sure, this is coming from someone who was just 14 years old and about to begin her freshman year in high school when it opened, but isn't that also sort of the point? Memphis had been around for nearly half my days on this planet when I turned 21, and yet I knew without having ever been there after the kitchen closed that it wasn't a tired, overdone has-been, but rather a place where I wanted to—in the most un-clichd sense possible—see and be seen—a place worth checking out. Kind of like how, I'd imagine, Costa Mesans now in their 30s must have felt when they first sat down at the bar—and how they still feel today: Memphis is not so much a relic of their younger days but a cause for celebrating them—and their older ones too.
"It's always incredible. You don't go there and think, 'Oh, wow, this place was really cool in the late '90s' and stop going," says Schwab, who first began dropping by Memphis when he was 23 and working at the then-open Tower Records Alternative at the Lab. "It's a solid idea for a restaurant/bar, and I think it's held up. As long as they're around, I'll continue to go there."
And yet: there are drawbacks to becoming an institution, especially in Orange County, where it's easy to hate things—even good things—because everything around you at first might seem to be a strip mall, or a stucco house, or a combination of the two. And it's even easier to hate things—specifically the good ones—when they total a number you can count on one finger, a predicament that became more complex in the fall of 2001, when the Memphis owners formed the Memphis Group, solicited other investors and opened Detroit Bar on Costa Mesa's West Side.
The Memphis Group, then and
now: (L-R) Jason Valdez,
Dan Bradley, Diego Velasco
and Andy Christenson
Photo by John Gilhooley
After purchasing and renovating Club Mesa—a fixture of sorts in the county's punk rock scene that (depending upon whom you talk to) you either had the fortune or misfortune of attending ("You would go to try to see a punk band, and it was always a nightmare," remembers Schwab, "the kind of club you wouldn't want to bring your girlfriend to")—in October the Memphis Group launched Detroit, a lounge/bar combination with an Ikea-meets-Eames look and a cool if somewhat isolating feel.
Early reports suggested the bar would infrequently, if at all, host shows by live bands—opting instead for DJs, virtually a guaranteed moneymaker in OC's house/dance music heyday in terms of packing a club and selling drinks—but if night after night of DJs and prerecorded music was what they were after, the Memphis Group made some serious missteps in hiring former Stab You in the Back Records co-owner and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (among others) road manager Chris Fahey, not to mention inviting British and French analog/samba rock giants Stereolab to headline a show on the bar's opening night.
"It was magical, actually," Bradley says of that first night. "I remembered seeing Jesus and Mary Chain playing Safari Sam's when I was younger, thinking, 'I can't believe these people are playing here—I'll remember this for the rest of my life.'
"And yet here's Club Mesa, this shit-kicker dangerous dive bar with a lot of fights, and to be able to transform that into a venue that would host Stereolab and those sorts of bands?" he continues. "I was just hoping we could sustain that—the 'Oh my God, I can't believe I saw this' shows."
Today, bolstered by a solid lineup of weekly, biweekly and monthly DJ nights—deep house staple Bristol Sessions, hip-hop/all things groove club L_ephunk, live hip-hop party Abstract Workshop, as well as the OC base for LA hip-hop/soul club Root Down—Detroit Bar has hosted such big-name acts as Elliott Smith, Broadcast, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse, the Breeders and Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest and established itself as the go-to venue for both indie/rock & roll bands traveling through the county and local acts tired of the routine pay-to-play/all-ages/sub-par-sound gigs elsewhere in the county.
In the process, it has also become the nexus of what is the county's emerging, yet-to-be-titled New Sound: an impressive mix of lo-fi singer/songwriters, jangle pop bands, '70s rockers, twangy alt.-country acts, '80s synth groups, prog-heads and all things deliberately not affiliated with the punk- and ska-based Old Sounds. "Between Richard Swift and Innaway and Jessica Dobson and Matt Costa and now Cold War Kids, something may be happening," Chris Ziegler wrote last month, and whether or not Detroit was the genesis of it is undoubtedly a chicken-or-the-egg? debate that could go on for years to come. But as to the Memphis Group's role in the local music community, ask yourself this: Without Detroit Bar, where else would you voluntarily go to see your friends' bands play?
* * *
"There are so many goals and things we want to accomplish," muses Memphis Group co-owner (and marketing/public relations director/resident Souled Out DJ) Jason Valdez when I ask him what the future holds for the Memphis Group. "People and bands [in LA] are finally starting to look our way, wanting to know how they can get into our scene."
Chatting with Valdez, you begin to notice he likes to bounce back and forth between a few choice buzzwords: "community," "scene," "like-minded individuals," each one preceded and followed by what seems like an endless stream of we/our/us pronouns. He's a very likable guy—the nicest guy in nightlife, some might argue—a well-connected cheerleader rooting not only for Costa Mesa but also the county at large.
Valdez is also, in more than just one respect, the new face of the Memphis Group, an instrumental part of their continued success but also, in a way, its future. After teaming with Bradley and Velasco—who, for the record, are also joined by an additional silent partner, Ryan Bradley—shortly after the Memphis Group opened another restaurant, Memphis at the Santora, in Santa Ana's Artists Village in 2001, the men focused on two main goals: continuing to build Costa Mesa's reputation for nightlife and laying the foundation for similar community-building in downtown Santa Ana.
Valdez's excitement is as contagious as it is refreshing: "We're going to make this place the Troubadour of the OC," he told me outside Detroit Bar one night, referencing LA's famed quaint rock & roll venue, "and I won't stop until that happens."
It was a bold declaration at the time—proud, not cocky—but it also hit upon something that the 21- to 25-year-olds of what Valdez calls "the new guard" had perhaps not yet been capable of admitting: that Orange County was going to be okay, that it was fine to really, truly be happy living here, and that, for the first time in a long time, people were actually investing in a nightlife scene that they, too, were proud to be a part of.
At the moment, the Memphis Group is well on its way to reaching the first goal—"Big things are coming up," Valdez promises, not the least of which involves a possible gig by some Very Big Critical Darlings from Brooklyn at Detroit Bar, but also the reopening of the Tin Lizzie, a quaint gay bar located across the street from Memphis Costa Mesa that Valdez, Bradley, Velasco and other investors purchased earlier this year, are in the process of remodeling and—most important, given community and all—will continue to operate as a gay bar.
Still, Santa Ana remains a challenge. The city agreed a few months ago to let the restaurant/bar and its neighbors extend their hours until 2 a.m. on the weekends, but total attendance and bar sales still fall short of those reached every week by their Costa Mesa properties. Valdez and Bradley hope that "Future Days," a new residency on the second, third and fourth Fridays of every month (an anything-goes freeform night along the lines of similar residences at bars such as Kitsch Bar and Avalon featuring DJ Eyad—who, in the interests of full disclosure, also happens to be my boyfriend) will gradually attract people to the area, but Valdez notes it won't be easy.
"The city's courting of all the new businesses for downtown was a bit premature, I think," he says. "Right now the biggest hurdle we face is that we're the only destination for the downtown area. With the exception of Original Mike's and a Tejano pool hall, there isn't another bar, like how Avalon [is located across the street from Detroit Bar] in Costa Mesa."
Yet despite this hurdle, Valdez's enthusiasm remains constant: "Santa Ana is one of the only realistic places in the county for people [in their 20s and 30s] to buy housing," he says, "and I think there is so much potential there. It's like Berlin, in a way, with all kinds of influences converging, and artists and people are beginning to think on the same plane and come together.
"But as far as the redevelopment of downtown, it is just that—a downtown. It needs to be a downtown area, not a Starbucks."
Artists Village residents, such as OC/LA hair stylist/studio/gallery owner/DJ Chris Hall, agree: "[Santa Ana] needs to focus on the arts, but at the same time there needs to be an infrastructure in the Artists Village," Hall says. "Places to eat, places to drink—but it's an artists' village, not a Gaslamp [San Diego's downtown barhopping borough]. Anything that goes in [to the village] that is like Memphis would be infrastructure for it."
Indeed, 10 years on, it seems that, for a number of county residents, the phrase "like Memphis" no longer merely implies high-quality DJs, or affordable drinks—or even painfully delicious pan-fried chicken—but rather something far greater: what it means for you—and your neighborhood—when Bradley, Vasquez and Velasco move in.
"They've been very active and involved in what happens in the Artists Village," remarks Hall. "[Bradley] has been working with the Business Improvement District and the Artists Village Association. He lives and owns a business in Costa Mesa and yet spends a lot of time [in Santa Ana]. He's not just throwing a restaurant down there just to make mad cash."
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"I personally would love to do a small hotel," Valdez continues matter-of-factly when elaborating on the Memphis Group's plans for the future. "I'd like to continue to just give back, to challenge ourselves and challenge the area—scoop up an Ali Baba [motel, along the 55 in Costa Mesa] and turn it into a 25-suite, three-rooms-to-a-suite boutique hotel."
And it is perhaps here—in the redevelopment of cities such as Costa Mesa and Santa Ana and others like Tustin and Orange—where the Memphis Group's latest endeavor (that is, after becoming Orange County's answer to the Troubadour and opening a gay bar) will have the most impact: the formation of a consulting group, which will aid investors with an interest in purchasing and operating bars and restaurants by recommending and scouting locations, conceptualizing design elements, navigating city ordinances and red tape—even hiring management.
Given that the Memphis Group intends initially to focus on what's already familiar—Costa Mesa and Santa Ana—as well as agree only to work with "like-minded individuals" (there it is again!), it isn't difficult to picture the trio's superbly styled, classy, affordable and positive blend of nightlife popping up in a bar or restaurant every few blocks within the next five years or so.
"It's a logical progression," Valdez says. "You can't keep running and purchasing things by yourself forever. You'll hit a wall."