Minus Its Eccentric Onetime Owner, Sid Soffer, the Blue Beet Goes On and On . . .

Illustration by Michael Ziobrowski

If the old adage about everyone having their 15 minutes of fame rings anywhere near true, the legend of Sid Soffer and his Blue Beet bar is easily pushing a full hour and a half. The maverick restaurateur who owned and operated both Sid’s Steakhouse and the more legendary Sid’s Blue Beet bar in Newport Beach died in 2007. But stories of backroom poker games, second-to-none beef stroganoff, and epic battles against City Hall and its political establishment carry on to this day.

“Everyone knows the stories,” quips a waitress, mid-pour, on a recent Friday afternoon at the Blue Beet. The bar is located on the first floor of a three-story structure that sits adjacent to the Newport Beach Pier and has been there, as advertised prominently on the outside of the building and imbued in local folklore, since 1912. “You can ask anyone, and they probably know of Sid.”

The bar, which provided the backdrop for many of Sid’s theatrics, was originally owned by Henry Stark during both “dry” and “wet” years in the early days of Newport Beach. More notably, at least for locals, it also purportedly served short stints as a brothel and the rumored home of a near-perpetual poker game in its infamous backroom. With that buildup, it seemed only natural that in the mid-1960s it was purchased by Soffer and became the centerpiece of his local empire.

The steakhouse, which Sid also owned and operated, was on Old Newport Road. Perhaps reflective of his “what you see is what you get” personality, the restaurant was legendary for refusing to serve condiments: no salt, no pepper, and certainly no ketchup. That particular culinary practice was also carried out at the Blue Beet, where Sid would allegedly season the food himself in the postage-stamp-sized kitchen.

But while the steakhouse was likely more lucrative during the 1960s to mid-1970s, Sid’s emotional focus during that time was seemingly on the Blue Beet. By all accounts, the bar featured the holy triumvirate of any successful endeavor in Newport Beach: booze, good food and an unparalleled lineup of eclectic, live acts. Those who were frequent attendees at the time recall in social-media threads that in the same week, Steve Martin performed a standup set, Peter Tork of the Monkees delivered a solo performance and a flamenco guitarist known colloquially as “Jose Feliciano Perez” wooed the beach-going crowd. Throw in some Monday and Friday poetry readings, and you have the stuff of legends.

But as much as the bar was known for delivering the goods, it was Sid’s skirmishes with City Hall that remain the Blue Beet’s true legacy. From code violations to health-department shutdowns, Sid apparently fought City Hall at every step he could. Rumor has it Newport Beach’s current three-minute rule, which limits the time a public speaker has during council meetings, is thanks to Sid, who rarely missed either Newport Beach or Costa Mesa City Council meetings—even those conducted on the same night.

But spats with local politicians over zoning issues or nuisance complaints is one thing. Bench warrants are serious business. And that, reportedly, is what was issued by a local judge when Sid failed to respond to one of many violations and subsequent notices to appear. Consistent with his reputation, Sid did what any local anti-establishment “man of the people” would do under similar circumstances: He moved to Las Vegas. And that’s where he stayed until his death in 2007. Not to be completely outdone by the suits, however, Sid sold the Blue Beet bar upon his departure but retained ownership of the building. Conflicting reports cite leukemia and kidney failure as the exact cause of his death.

But what is uncontested is Sid’s legacy. Not even fire could extinguish the story and one last cameo appearance before his death.

Just before 4 a.m. on April 18, 1986, the Blue Beet burned down. According to a Los Angeles Times article printed the day after, Sid came out of hiding in the high desert of Nevada to visit the remnants of the building whose reputation he had helped to shape. As noted in the article, he just stared at the ruins. “You don’t have feelings after a while—this is my third fire,” he said. “You’d go crazy if you fell apart every time something like this happens.”

Sid then returned to Vegas, and the Blue Beet changed hands a few more times before it was purchased by father/son investors Steve and Scott Lewis, who once proudly posted a notice at the door that read, “Sid Ain’t Here . . . Don’t Ask.”

Even though Sid is physically gone from this world, the Blue Beet remains a testament to his persona as a bit of a cultural outlier. Flanked by the allure of more college-friendly bars such as Baja Sharkeez, Blue Beet leverages its role as the only bar/restaurant in the immediate area to feature both music and dancing. “We get at least three or four people a day coming in here, asking if they can just look around . . . to remember,” says John, a bartender at the Blue Beet with about a six-month tenure under his belt. “They will always tell me, ‘I’ve been coming here since before you were born.’”

Joanne, a woman seated on the third-floor balcony enjoying the view with her husband and a glass of Chardonnay, is one such person. Although she now lives in Palm Desert, she felt obligated to come back for a visit. She remembers standing in long lines to get in, “even after they were shut down,” she says. “The place was always just packed.”

When asked about his favorite Sid story, John shyly responds he is “just part of the JV squad.” “There are others who have been working here for 20 years that could tell you more,” he adds.

But between his perfect pour and obvious respect for the history of the place, John will make the varsity team very soon. And I’m sure Sid would be very proud.

Cherin is a Los Angeles-based attorney and lobbyist. He lives in Long Beach.

8 Replies to “Minus Its Eccentric Onetime Owner, Sid Soffer, the Blue Beet Goes On and On . . .”

  1. I had the unbelievable fortune to live on the Boardwalk on the Balboa Peninsula from 1987 to 2003. I have been back in my native Texas since then but I still carry a $2 bill every day in my money clip to honor the Great Sid Sofer. You always knew that you had been to Sid’s bc he gave all his change in $2 bills, silver dollars and 50 cent pieces. I can still see Sid at the counter of the old Bank of America at 32nd and Newport Blvd counting and stacking his silver dollars like the crazed genius that he was.

    The motto of his steakhouse was “Don’t tell nobody. “ No sign. Darkest street in Newport. If you tracked down the phone number, he would answer by saying , “How did you get this number?” Most unique dining experience ever. True speak easy feel.

    Sid absconded to Vegas In 1996 not 1986. When the judge took the entire court and jury to Sid’s house in Costa Mesa to see if his old Cadillacs and milk trucks parked on his front lawn would indeed start, it was the Orange County equivalent of OJ trying on the glove.

    Best restauranteur, bar man and gadfly that I’ve ever known.

  2. I had the honor of being a reporter for the Daily Pilot, then the Register’s Community Edition during Sid’s tenure in Costa Mesa. He spoke on every item, and most if it made sense, if it wasn’t downright correct.

    A different style of gadfly back then, Sid didn’t bring anger and vitriol to the podium. He just said his piece … even it was pointing out how the Council was wrong, again.

    Ah, the good old days. Sid’s places, the original Arches and Villa Nova … and the Balboa Bay Club at the height of its … whatever it was. Ah, truly, if those walls could have talked.

    Kudos for the story, and for the tribute from Rex, too.

  3. i’m a granddaughter of the original owner of starck”s caffe. My grandfather-henry starck and later my father-burt oquist ran the bar -both men were pioneers of newport beach-truth-yest there was gambling
    in the back(was called little las vegas-to bad the business was remembered by sid (not a fair business man)

  4. Loved going back in time. Folk music, flamenco, young Steve Martin making balloon animals for kids. My husband arguing with waitress and Sid for “just a little bit of pepper” for the Strog. Beef dish. Thanks for the reminders.

  5. Nice article.. My dad and Sid were the best of friends. They were a duo fighting the city. He is sorely missed.

  6. Singing & picking guitar or banjo 4 nights a week at Sid’s mostly supported me in 1965 at $15/night. Worked fighting fires with the USFS in 1966; went to Pasadena CC after that. When the money ran out, went back to Sid’s Friday & Saturday night, sleeping in the car overnight. When I asked for a raise, Sid said, “You ain’t worth it, Mike!” I found student graveyard work at Cal Tech & then taught music at stores in Pasadena, So Pas, & at the Pasadena Rec Dept. More money, less drive, & I slept at home!

  7. I played guitar and sang with “Wild Oats” at Sid’s for about five years in the late 60s (I think). Frankly, we all thought he was an asshole. One night four people at a table in front of the stage asked their waitress very politely for some salt and pepper. She told them she’d get fired if she brought it to them. Soon Sid showed up at their table and told them their steaks were already seasoned. All four of them were lawyers, and said they would simply leave if they didn’t get salt and pepper — they hadn’t taken a bite of anything. Sid called the cops, and the four of them just stayed put and joked around with us during the interim. The cops came, the lawyers told them what had happened, and we just continued to play music. The cops told the foursome they could leave without paying, and Sid yelled to them, “SEE YOU IN COURT!” They laughed and left. Sid ate all four of their steaks while standing behind the bar.

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