Saturday Night at the Blue Beet
Illustration by Heather SwaimDorothy Parker had her writer's roundtable at the Algonquin; DiMaggio and Sinatra hid from their fans at Toots Shor's; Hemingway picked fights at Sloppy Joe's; Wild Bill Hickock got shot at Sweeney's Silver Dollar Saloon. Most of us are just working people, but we, too, have places we call our own. I claim the Blue Beet Caf at Newport Beach's McFadden Square.
It's where I go to relax—sometimes with my pals, sometimes next to a beautiful girl, most of the time not. Quiet or crowded, this is my place.
Tonight, it'll be crowded. I arrive around 8 p.m., an hour before they start charging a $5 cover. At the moment, no one's standing outside the 89-year-old brick walls. But in just a couple of hours, scores of beautiful people will line up outside this door, out for a night of drinking and dancing and flirting with other beautiful people.
Another Saturday night.
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Photo by Jeanne Rice
"Volare" is playing through the bar as a good crowd mills amid the white Christmas lights and ornamental holly strung over the bar. It's still early and quiet enough to hear a woman with a brutal Joisey City accent regale three guys about "numbnuts" this and "jackass" that over steaks. Not so quiet as some nights, when a customer might find the bartender sitting at the bar, reading the sports page. The customers tonight are mostly folks out for dinner or a couple of belts after work. In an hour, they'll be gone.
"Game time," says John Arata, the Beet's manager tonight. He's behind the bar with Stacy McBride, who's also a substitute high school teacher.
A former yacht club waiter and bartender, John dreams of one day running his own bar. He came to the Beet when it changed hands in 1998. He was a utility guy—serving food, tending bar, whatever was needed.
"I took the shifts nobody wanted," he says. "Day shifts, every crap shift there was."
John knows when to change the fruit tray and when it's time to get rid of a couple of drunks. He can also tell when it's time to order more vodka and when it's time to cut someone off.
It may be "game time," but some of the players are still warming up. Brent Baker, the Beet's flirtatious, 30-year-old bartender, and Chris Harger, a six-foot-10-inch security guard, are eating. Soon Harger and three other guys will begin carding customers and standing watch throughout the restaurant. It doesn't take long to finish dinner.
"Well, I'm looking forward to five hours on my feet," Chris says.
"Yeah," says Brent, "I just want to sleep now."
"Why do you think I've had three cups of joe?" says Chris.
It's 9 p.m., and as Brent settles in behind the bar, Chris and the rest of his security detail heads to the bar.
"I've got to take the chair," he tells a customer sitting at the far end of the bar, the end closest to the restrooms and the stage. The place will get so crowded soon that the dozen bar chairs need to go outside. And because the chairs are usually occupied, Chris tends to meet with resistance.
"People give me trouble all the time," he says. "They'll say things like, 'This is the last time I'm coming here.' 'Whatever,' I tell them. 'I still need the chair.'"
Photo by Jeanne Rice
A few minutes later, Gloria walks in, saying nothing as she weaves through the crowd, her gray hair tied back with its usual translucent black bow. Without acknowledging anyone, she takes a seat near the stage. A few moments after Gloria sits, on cue, waitress Betty Browne brings her a glass of iced orange juice.
A huge jazz fan, Gloria says she used to watch Count Basie in the '50s, but she listens to just about all the live bands that play at the Beet, including tonight's—a new band that plays Elvis and Chuck Berry covers. Once, when one guitarist could play only briefly with a jazz group because of an injured wrist, Gloria took his hand and applied what she called "a healing touch." The musician described the gesture as "nice" and "real sincere" but hesitated to call it "helpful."
Tonight, like every night, she's brought her maracas.
Watching Gloria from the end of the bar, Mark [not his real name] takes another sip from his cocktail. Waiting for friends, he glances at the cell phone sitting next to his glass.
"There aren't any good places to hang out in Tustin," says Mark. "But I love this place. It's really comfortable. Lots of beautiful women, too."
Mark takes another sip. He talks a little about his job, but he really wants to discuss his recent DUI arrest.
"I don't think MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] has done a lot of good," he says. "I think prosecuting first-time DUIs when nothing happens is a mistake."
Mark finishes his drink, places the empty glass at the edge of the bar and calls for another. Before he gets a new one, Aucencio Costilla materializes behind the bar and scoops up the empty glass. He adds it to a half-dozen other pint and cocktail glasses he has lined up at the center of the bar.
"Hardest-working man in Newport Beach," Chris says.
First, Aucencio tosses out whatever lemon wedges are in the glasses. Then he dumps the glasses in the water-filled sink, scrubs each one and sets it to one side. When he's done, he distributes the glasses between each end of the bar. Then he places some of the pint glasses—still wet—in the cooler.
"I mean, when someone drives drunk and injures or kills someone," Mark continues, "then they should throw the book at him—but not make a big deal out of just driving drunk, especially the first offense. Then again, maybe I'm just biased."
Photo by Jeanne Rice
Aucencio brings dark-blue coffee mugs to the sink, washes them and places them in a cupboard near the kitchen by a painted sign that reads, "Sid Ain't Here . . . Don't Ask."
Sid Soffer, the Beet's mercurial millionaire former owner, sold the restaurant in 1998 but still owns the building. He opened the Beet in 1960, rebuilt it after it burned in 1986, and then suddenly closed it in 1992 to concentrate on his new restaurant, Sid's Steakhouse. The Beet lay nearly derelict for three years. In 1995, just after fleeing to Vegas with sacks of cash from the steakhouse to avoid three months in jail for repeatedly violating building codes, Sid told his employees to plunder the Beet for its remaining booze.
Inside, the staff found food rotting on tables and in the freezer, long starved of electricity. When they told him the alcohol they found contained large amounts of rat droppings and fly eggs, Sid said to "filter it out."
They dumped it. The story is surely apocryphal—I'd love to see a rat so fastidious it could mount a bottle of merlot for its toilet or a fly so contrary to its nature that it would hatch its young in alcohol. But nobody is bothered by such inconsistencies because such a story is otherwise so consistent with Sid.
Photo by Jeanne Rice
Aucencio finishes and heads into the kitchen, and John comes to the end of the bar where Brent is working. Brent is a couple of feet away, flirting with pretty girls. The place isn't crowded, so John doesn't care. He gets along with just about everyone.
There was one night, not a crowded night, when a drunk stumbled into Betty and caused a glass to fall and shatter. John, who'd been joking with friends, suddenly glared at the drunk as if the guy had disturbed his bar's delicate balance.
"Sometimes I hate being this tall," the six-foot-five bartender says. "I can see everything that goes on in this place. I can see them talking over there; I can see those guys goofing off over there. If I was short, then I wouldn't be able to see any of that."
John's actually not supposed to be managing tonight. That duty usually falls to his girlfriend, Frankie Leising, a tiny blonde who once worked as a flight attendant and played drums in the U.S. Army Reserve. Frankie always looks tired because she works so hard. She puts up the Christmas decorations. She waitresses, tends bar and makes sure everything works. Tonight, Frankie needs a break.
The bar's quiet—John figures maybe it's the Elvis and Chuck Berry cover band; the Blue Beet is usually home to the hits of the 1970s and '80s. But Gloria is on her feet, shaking her maracas.
John is pensive. "There are a lot of Christmas parties tonight," he offers. "But this place still has more people in it right now than any other place in Newport. You watch: at midnight, then we'll start to get crowded."
At midnight, Roger [not his real name] comes in and announces that he and his friends are "out whoring." A Beet regular, Roger is in his mid-20s. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt. He met a cute girl here a few weeks before and has since gone out with her. But tonight he's here with two of his pals, and they've "got a place on the sand, and we're looking for some girls to take back."
As John predicted, the Beet has gotten crowded, so crowded that Chris uses a Mag-Lite to illuminate a path along the bar.
People wind their way upstairs to the bar's second deck and a third level with an outdoor patio overlooking the ocean. On one side of the deck, Rupert is hanging out near the giant poster of Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. A native of Antigua, he sometimes teaches classes on meditation; the beach is his classroom. He spends his evenings walking the Newport peninsula with his Polaroid camera, selling souvenir photos for $6—half of which he says goes to the Feed the Children Fund. He has been doing that for 16 years.
On the other side of the deck is Gina Dortch, who's working a small green plastic bar with barely enough room for one bartender. Somehow, between taking orders, mixing drinks and making change, she finds time to dance to the music floating from the ground floor.
A few years ago, Gina was in the U.S. Air Force, serving as an air-traffic controller guiding aircraft—sometimes ones carrying nuclear weapons—into Florida's Homestead Air Force Base. As she's dancing to "Jailhouse Rock," a birthday group approaches. One of them asks for six Jäger shots, which she dutifully pours into tiny paper cups. As she does, two guys come in from the patio and stand next to the cash register.
"So where are you from?" asks the one drinking a Bud Light. Trying to look casual, he leans against the register.
"Florida," she says, making change for the Jäger shots party.
"That's cool. . . . Where in Florida?"
Bud Light nods, lingers and then vanishes onto the patio.
Photo by Jeanne Rice
From his perch, Rupert watches people down on the dance floor. With the tables pushed to the sides, a half-dozen couples are dancing to "Johnny B. Goode."
He has already been to a couple of bars tonight. He'll stop at a few more after the Beet.
"For this time of the year, business is good," he says, smiling. Rupert is always smiling.
Business is good. He watches Aucencio snaking through the crowd, balancing a massive white bucket of ice on his shoulder. He's careful but fast.
Aucencio negotiates the stairs with the bucket. He moves past the security guy at the foot of the stairs and, without pausing, wades into the crowd of people standing at the bar. The crowd towers over him; only the bucket is visible, slowly bobbing on a sea of studs and hotties.
From across the room, Aucencio looks almost boyish, but he's 51 and has six children. He's short, not particularly big, with thick dark hair. But up close, you can see the deep lines on his face—his skin is like tooled leather—and his tremendous hands.
When he reaches the bar, Aucencio pours some of the ice into the sink at the end of the bar near the kitchen, some into a sink at the middle of the bar and the rest into the sink at the far end of the bar. When he's done, he returns the bucket to the upstairs liquor room.
Roger heads down from the top deck. He passes Chris, now standing at the bottom of the stairwell talking to Betty, who also happens to be his girlfriend. Chris and Betty met at the Beet, exactly as they are now—leaning against the wall together, though it's somewhat out of character for Betty to stand still. A Beet waitress for the past few months, Betty is effervescent, even hyper. She dances to and from the kitchen, dances when she's keying in drink orders at the register, dances while waiting for drinks at the end of the bar, and dances while picking up her food order at the kitchen.
"I almost became an Orlando Magic Girl," she said one day in the bar after mimicking the televised cheers of the Laker Girls. "I made the first two cuts, but then they rejected me. Said I was too tall. It would have been nice if they'd told me that when I first tried out."
The lights in the place are really low now.
"This is when everybody looks at the time and realizes they need to draft someone," Brent says, watching a guy sitting close to a brunette with what look like sizable breast implants. The pair whisper to each other, laugh a bit, even kiss. Then the girl suddenly bolts onto the dance floor. The guy sits there a moment, stunned, as though someone had just knocked him over the head with a bottle. Then he follows.
At the bar, Brent and Aucencio are busy changing a beer keg. Each holding one side, they walk crab-like down the bar, maneuvering the big silver keg into its well beneath the beer taps. When he's done, Aucencio starts collecting empty glasses from the bar.
Roger and his friends are now sitting at a table just off the bar but close to the dance floor. They've hooked up with four gorgeous girls, all wearing either strapless minidresses or spaghetti-strap tops and tight pants.
Sitting next to a girl with long brown hair and a pink drink, Roger shoots questions at her for a few minutes and then gets up for another drink.
"The blonde seemed cool with going out, but that brunette wasn't," he says. "She said she's a special-ed teacher, so I thought I had an in. My sister's special-ed, so I tried talking to her about that. But she wasn't going for it."
Taking another swig from his drink, Roger heads back to the brunette. This time, she's standing, and Roger gets into a conversation. Before long, she's resting her hand on his back, talking to him intently.
But a few minutes later, she's seated again, her back to Roger, talking to some guy who looks to be in his late 30s.
"I can't believe she'd rather talk to that receding-hairline guy," says Roger. "All right, guys, let's go someplace else."
As Roger and his buddies leave, three new guys slip into the seats near the girls.
By 1:30 a.m., it's over.
"See you later, alligator!" says the band's lead singer as they wrap their last song.
"And now the ugly lights come on," says Brent, and the Beet's interior becomes as unforgiving as any corporate office. With no music playing and the band packing up their instruments, the only sound is the low buzz of overlapping conversations. Chris and the rest of security start clearing people out: three guys, shoulder to shoulder, steadily moving the crowd toward the door. Moments before, groups of guys and girls were intermingling, caressing one another's backs, wrapping their arms around one another's waists. Now they're mostly leaving separately, with the same people with whom they arrived.
The girls Roger and his pals were trying to pick up on leave without any guys.
"We had a really nice night," one of the girls says. "But we had a lot of sharks around us. They were just trying too hard."
Within 15 minutes, the doors are locked and the Beet is empty of customers. The room is quiet. Most of the staff—Stacy, John, Brent, Gina, Betty, Chris and the rest of security—are all seated. Some are digging into steak quesadillas.
Aucencio is emptying the garbage. Someone says a drunk vomited in the men's room sink, plugging it up; Aucencio will have to take care of that, too. Under a large photo of a very young Sinatra at Toots Shor's, Stacy and Brent count tips. It hasn't been a good night. The crowd eventually came, but it came too late.
"What it comes down to is Brent wasn't flirting enough," jokes Stacy.
One of the security guys heads out back to unlock the bar chairs and bring them back in, only to realize the keys are missing. Their search is fruitless. By 3 a.m., most of the staff has gone home. The bar chairs are still locked up out back.
Finally, one of the guards goes up to John. "Do you have any bolt cutters?" he asks.
By this time, I'm out the door. I don't hear John's response. But when I drop by the Beet on Monday night, the chairs are where they should be.
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