Name of Bar: Mel’s Lounge
Address: 209 W. Carrillo
Location: Corner of Carrillo and De la Vina
Days/Hours: Sunday and Monday, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 9:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 a.m.
Known As: Your last stop for the night.
Open Since: 1963, officially, but Fran intimates that they’ve been open for 72 years.
Patrons: Locals in their late 30s to 60s excited to cut loose at the bar they’ve been coming to for years
Special Draw: Stiff drinks, live music every Friday and Saturday, pool, and the occasional drag show
Bar Food?: Absolutely – their chicken chorizo nachos are famous, and everything’s reasonably priced.
Insider’s Tip: DO NOT order a double. You’re already getting one.
My experience: I couldn’t remember the last time I’d given up my weekly karaoke night at Whiskey Richard’s for anything, much less to visit another bar. But how could I miss this?
Mel’s 50th anniversary party? As I parked my bike out front—one tassel lost somewhere in the Funk Zone—I hard the familiar sound of live, local music. Somewhere behind the lounge’s humble exterior, a band was dishing out soulful covers to the hoots of patrons. Opening the door, I saw a woman in a sequin Harley Davidson tank top belting the Stones as a saxophone flared in syncopation. I walked into the darkness and found the last seat at the bar.
The bartender poured me a tall glass of whiskey as the band took requests for their next song. I took a moment to myself and observed the scene before me. The dark wooden bar, accented with elegant stained glass, was surrounded by enthusiasts two deep. No one was here by themselves, and if they’d come alone, they no longer were. Clusters of patrons gesticulated wildly as they defended their arguments, pledged their words, and executed their punch lines to the delight of their companions. I decided this was a good place for strangers, but not for those who want to remain so. Mine was the only note of silence in the place, a rest in the bass line under a tumble of treble triplets.
So I sat there, jotting down notes into an awkwardly small notebook, tapping my foot to the music. I must have looked lonely. Cesar, a neighbor to my right, asked what I was writing. I write bar reviews for the Independent, was my sheepish answer. He clapped me on the back and called Fran over. She was tending bar, and beamed as I picked her brain for quotes and dug for those nuggets, those treasured little rays of light that penetrate the artifice of presentation and give us isolated glimpses of lucidity. She pulled out an old article from the ‘90s celebrating, to my chagrin, Mel’s 50 anniversary party? Next, she presented me with a photo album and a playful list of rules, which served more as a primer as to the behaviors and expectations of the regulars than anything else.
It struck me as Fran passed around the photo album, thick with pictures and newspaper clippings, that this anniversary wasn’t simply a promotion to get people into Mel’s, as many bar events are. It truly was a birthday party. We were celebrating Mel’s, toasting a Santa Barbara tradition. It reminded me of home, of the big parties we’d throw for all the cousins when they graduated or got engaged or hit a milestone year. We’d make a collage, and we’d dig through all those boxes of pictures, and Aunt Jean would do her Carnac impression. The anniversary party was a family affair, and despite my late arrival, I felt a part of that family.
As the night wore on, the jokes got worse and the laughs got heartier. Fran and Jimmy taught me their toast – a rather anticlimactic “Up yours!” – and I taught them my grammy’s favorite.
Now, Mel’s is known for its stiff drinks. At its old location on State Street by Paseo Nuevo, it was every local’s last stop – Mel’s would finish you off and call you cab and you were done. Mel’s is now a classy top-notch lounge, but they somehow achieved that without sacrificing comfort. Or the strength of their drinks. But tonight I was convinced that it was not the celebratory shots that had loosened me up, but the setting, the comfortable music, and the people I was spending my time with.
As I paid my bill and tipped my servers, Fran called after me, asking if I was safe to ride. I smiled and said yes. But, you know, I appreciated that. I couldn’t wait to come back.