The Ghost of Steakhouses Past: Sid’s on Old Newport

Sid Soffer childhood photo.

Every second and fourth Wednesday night of the month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau hosts Dinner with Dave at Memphis at the Santora, where he treats drinkers to a free meal and live music as the evening progresses. To remind ustedes of this great night, Dave treats us every Wednesday morning that he’s on to a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!

I wish I would have met Sid Soffer………..

I’m not saying we would have hit it off; it might have been like matter and anti-matter colliding for all I know. It could have resulted in a Newport Beach brawl that would have spilled out on to Old Newport Road and gone down in the annals of drunken OC pugilism, trumping even The Duke’s whiskey-fueled exploits at the Balboa Bay Club. I’d like to think we would have been friends though, but that’s because I have a lot of respect for him and the way he did things. I also like what he stood for.

Sid’s Steakhouse is all but a memory now, held in esteem by those that were fortunate enough to make it there and still stands like a haunted house on Old Newport Road. I got a peek inside the heavily padlocked property several years ago and, believe me; it’s frozen in time like Pompeii in there. Nearly abandoned, it holds its lonely vigil next to the shiny new medical buildings springing up in support of the Hoag Hospital complex. Sid bought the then undervalued property when Bill Lindley ran it as Whiskey Bills (the sign is still up). Apparently Bill didn’t like the terms of his new rental agreement and Sid took over the operation. Thus was born Sid’s Steakhouse.

Sid was a maverick by anyone’s standards for sure, locking horns with local government on a constant basis. Small government guy, he just wanted to be left the fuck alone. He was a vocal regular at Costa Mesa and Newport Beach city council meetings. When the two cities got together to hold their meetings on the same night, in order to spare them his presence at one of them at least, he rushed from one to another just to vex them. To this day, the three-minute maximum speaking time at the Costa Mesa proceedings is rumored to have been enacted because of him. Towards the end of his residency in OC, an otherwise innocuous difference of opinion over a few parked cars turned into an epic personal grudge match that landed Sid a bench warrant and one-way trip as a fugitive to Las Vegas—but he always promised to return. From there he literally ran his restaurant by remote control, with video cameras monitoring the coming and going of his employees.

His rebel nature also extended to how he ran his restaurant. Change was given in two-dollar bills and one-dollar coins (a leftover Vegas habit). No ketchup. No salt and pepper. Servers were instructed to answer queries for directions by saying “We’re at 445 N. Newport, if you can’t find it you didn’t want to hard enough”.

During the week, it was a mix of long time regulars and “confused first-timers” as one former server put it; weekend nights were packed. Their amazing baseball cut top sirloin (still the best I’ve ever had) and other steaks were served on a hot metal plate with candied carrots and mashed potatoes, no substitutions. The drinks were stiff; the bar could get so busy they ran out of ice. A flamenco guitarist was often in the corner, and the epic back bar reportedly came around the Horn during the 1800’s and ended up in a saloon in Cripple Creek, Colorado before making its way to Newport Beach. His food was great, super basic but great. I liked the fact he wasn’t trying to gouge anyone or pretend to be something he was not. And everyone got treated the same, from Newport Beach bluebloods to mangy local surfers, he didn’t care where you came from and nobody got special treatment. He always paid his chefs well and got the best guys from Five Crowns, working on their days off.

Sid Soffer’s childhood photo.

I’ve heard he was a tough boss (in addition to bearing a striking resemblance Dos Equis beer’s “Most Interesting Man In The World). He was also a complex guy from what I’ve been told. Volatile, confrontational and quick to temper, he was loved by and had the loyalty of many employees, some of which quit and came back over and over. A longtime bartender said he walked at least 45 times but always returned when Sid needed him. He was also a great lover and supporter of music, starting when he ran the legendary CafĂ© Frankenstein in Laguna during the end of the Beat Generation era before opening the Blue Beet.

What I respect about Sid the most is he realized restaurant victory or defeat is measured in pennies, not dollars and he knew this. He called it “finding the whey” (yes, whey not way). Whey is a byproduct of cheese manufacture, either discarded or now used for other purposes. “Finding the whey” meant finding the free money, making a buck off something you don’t have to pay for. He saved the trimmings from prepping steaks to utilize in his weekly specials, like beef grenadine ($2.50 a plate at the time) and his epic stroganoff.

Sid cared (a lot!) but it was his way or the highway and it was “his football” as he would put it. In other words his ball, his game. What will become of the Sid’s Steakhouse legacy? Well, it’s been in limbo for a long time and I’m not at liberty to discuss what I do know. Let’s just say Sid did it right and regardless of the property’s outcome I wouldn’t change a thing, past, present or future.

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