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.
Alex Cherin is an attorney and lobbyist based in Los Angeles.