Photo by Jeanne RiceAlone at closing time, in dead still, the Blue Beet Caf's restaurant manager, Liz Eckert, heard a tray of glasses shattering while the lights flickered. Stifling a scream, she searched the bar but never found a soul or broken glass. Another night, she saw rays of light shoot through the bar like a blue laser, causing her and a bartender to dash out of the place. “We had to compose ourselves outside before we could come back in and finish closing,” Eckert said, describing the “good ghost” that haunts the place—always after closing when only one or two staffers remain. So how does she know it's a good ghost? “Well, we like to think it is,” Eckert said.
And why shouldn't the building have a resident apparition? The Blue Beet oozes history. It has been around since 1912, closing for renovations in the late '80s after, as bartender Geoff Umpleby tells it, an ill-starred character named Snake was hired to paint the place; one day, Snake took a cigarette break and a nap at the same time on one of the couches and . . . POOF!
Almost solely by word of mouth, the Blue Beet has begun to boom since reopening under new owner Steve Lewis—who also owns Alta Coffee Co.—a little more than a year ago. The establishment is a brick-walled museum, housing mysterious antiques and early film memorabilia. There's a wall hanging of Bogey and Hepburn from a scene in The African Queen, and the chandeliers look as if they were recovered from the ballroom of the Titanic. A third level opens outside to a crow's-nest patio, where there's a Panavision view of the Pacific that goes great with a shaken, not stirred, martini.
Speaking of martinis, the Blue Beet offers an enormous selection—from traditional gin and vodka to a Danny Bear and a Malibu Slut. The waitresses are mostly beach hotties, proudly flashing their sun-licked navels, which explains why many of the happy-hour regulars are men, sitting at the bar, watering their unanimous addictions to beauty and the buzz. And bartender Johnny “Big Daddy” Arata—he stands at least 6-foot-4—is the convivial sultan of celebration, inventing rainbow concoctions in a cocktail shaker like a mad alchemist.
The restaurant is a steak oasis, where the meat is aged at least four weeks to break down the sinew—making it lavishly tender—and then marinated in head chef Jorge Guttierez's secret marinade before being charbroiled to order. All steaks come with homemade garlic-mashed potatoes and vegetables. The bacon-wrapped filet mignon (served in 8- or 12-ounce portions) is a thick, grilled favorite among regulars, and the ribs are mythical. Almost every night, there's a dinner special. On Wednesdays, it's baby-back ribs, which are so succulent that the meat hardly clings to the bone, and with Guttierez's barbecue sauce, they're an overture to ecstasy. I often dodge in for the flavorful yet unfishy-tasting Monday special: a huge bowl of linguine with a generous amount of steaming clams still in their shells.
For lunch, there is the best chicken-taco salad that has ever graced my palate, but it has to be made by the maestro, Guttierez, who adds chips, ranch dressing, homemade salsa and four fat slices of avocado. And the food always tastes better when daytime bartender Stacy McBride serves it up and puts on her '70s CD collection to ease digestion (though that's probably a matter of musical taste).
Because it's under a grandfather clause, the Blue Beet is one of the only restaurants in the city to have a cabaret license, which allows for live music—dirty blues, funk, reggae and hardcore jazz—seven nights a week. Don't expect a paranormal showing, though, unless you're caught there . . . after hours.
The Blue Beet Caf, located at 107 21st Pl., Newport Beach, is open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.). (949) 675-2338. Full bar. Dinner for two, $20, food only. All credit cards except Discover Card are accepted.