Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Last Saturday Night at Mel's

It's shortly before 11 p.m. and the place is packed. Packed like I've never seen it before.

Not that I'm a regular at Mel's. But few people who are here tonight seem to be admitting to being "regulars."

I first went to Mel's back when you could still pull your car up to the curb in front of the place. That was back in the days when De la Guerra Street ran between State and Chapala. That changed in the late '80s when the street was transformed into a pedestrian mall with the completion of Paseo Nuevo. But Mel's stayed.

I've only been inside a handful of times over the years. Through all those years, it's remained as it was, a down-to-earth, unpretentious "cocktail lounge."

Kelly's Corner, Peppers, 1129, Teasers, The Bull Market, and Nippers, have all come and gone since Mel's first opened in 1963. They all folded. Mel's survived, until now.

Now count it in the ranks of Freeman's Lounge, The Hideout and Johnny's Back Door, basic bars that while short when it came to stylish appointments, were long in the comfort and friendliness department.

A victim of escalating rents downtown Mel's closed for good on Sunday unlikely to find a venue to relocate to.

On this Saturday night a good part of the crowd is younger in age. They're probably not the patrons who are there at 8 a.m. each morning when the place opens for business each day. They're people who seem to like the idea of hanging out at a "dive bar" without having to take the plunge.

People are here not merely to drink up the liquor, but to soak up the atmosphere and feeling of the kind of place that has all but vanished from downtown Santa Barbara.

There's Malika, a UCLA grad, who is here with several girl friends, none of whom appears to be far removed from their college years. Brian, a school teacher, who steps outside between rounds to have a cigarette. And John, who works at Rite Aid.

The number of people who have crowded into Mel's on this next-to-last night is a stark contrast to the Scotch Bonnet (formerly Sevilla, and before that Casa Sevilla) where a mere week ago "The-Most-Downloaded-Woman-On-Craig-Smith's-Blog" and I were the only customers in the bar area at 10:30 on a Saturday night.

That the place was all but deserted wasn't the only stark contrast to Mel's. The place was beautifully decorated. All of the women who worked there were drop-dead gorgeous. The bartender was a picture of metrosexual style. I've even heard that the food is good. But the word hasn't gotten out yet. Or maybe it has.

Perhaps with Mel's gone, more people will find their way over to the Scotch Bonnet. Maybe not. It's only been open a month or so.

Will it stay open in this town for 45 years like Mel's? Few places ever have.