Other Freelance Shifting Paradigms

Another Relic Bites the Dust: A Gritty Day Drinker’s Bar is the Latest Santa Barbara Fixture to Be Priced Out of a Gentrified Market

In the crisp early hours of any given morning, those who decide to begin their day with a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in the Paseo Nuevo mall may notice the sounds of a clinking glass or hacking cough from a nearby dark open door.

This article was published on the website of The Ink Online, an experimental project launched by a group of Santa Barbara journalists.

In the crisp early hours of any given morning, those who decide to begin their day with a muffin and a steaming cup of coffee in the Paseo Nuevo mall may notice the sounds of a clinking glass or hacking cough from a nearby dark open door.

That’s the sound of a loyal group of regulars at Mel’s bar, starting the day off in their own way: with a glass of beer and a cigarette. Or, perhaps, just a cup of coffee.

Although daytime drinking might not be a tradition to aspire to, the patrons and tenders of the pub at 6 De la Guerra Street wryly maintain that Santa Barbarans should lament – at least a little bit — the impending loss of a historical fixture.

Regardless of whether Mel’s is a local treasure, an unhealthy enabler, or both, one thing is certain: It is the latest ma-and-pa-shop victim of the State Street rental bonanza.

Skyrocketing monthly rents – reportedly from $3,500 to $10,000 — are forcing the 66-year-old watering hole to either move out of its longtime digs or close up shop for good. The bar is currently looking for a vacant space with reasonable rent.

“It sucks — I’ll be honest with you,” said bartender Doug Hedger. “They’re bent on getting rid of small businesses. State Street is going to look like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, where it’s nothing but corporations.”

In the meantime, the Mel’s folks will continue to stop in for a drink and reminisce about what they believe to be the good old days for as long as they can.

Their favorite tales include the one of a lawyer named Bruce who used to show up every day at 7 a.m. for a glass of beer. When Bruce died, his relatives called the bar just to let everybody know.

“And to make sure he didn’t leave open a tab,” quipped Hedger, while fixing a $7 “Cadillac Margarita” for a customer on a recent summer day around noon.

Then there’s the lore about how the place used to be a speakeasy back in the days of prohibition.

“There were two sets of stairways from the basement to the bar,” said Richard Blake, a former bartender, of the bar’s first location just across the street, from which it moved 44 years ago. “There was only one reason for that – to hide the liquor in the basement, is my guess.”

In the ensuing years, Mel’s has had a way of attracting a clientele with more than a bit of grit. Take Hedger, for example.

Like many a Mel’s enthusiast, Hedger is a Vietnam war vet who drifted into Santa Barbara almost accidentally. A 56-year-old Wyoming native with a few missing teeth and a large tattoo on both forearms, Hedger spent his first few post-war years as a horse-riding ranch-hand in Arroyo Grande.

His career path changed in the blink of an eye, the day a stubborn Texas Longhorn-bramah mix– which he said translates loosely into “big cow with long horns” – fatally gored his horse in the heart, and then him in the stomach on his way to the ground.

Several weeks and seven surgeries later, Hedger decided to hop on his motorcycle and ride as far away from the ranch as possible. He ended up in Santa Barbara.

Hedger met some other bikers who introduced him to Mel’s, where he became a regular customer. That was 1981. Nearly 20 years later, he was promoted to bartender – where he has been ever since.

“I went from an imbiber to an enabler,” he mused.

But now he’s worried about his livelihood.

“I’m a little too old to get a job at some other bar,” he said.

The owner of Mel’s, Michael Knapp, said the bar has until Feb. 1 to find a new location. If it doesn’t happen by then, it’ll be closing time.

“There’s a lot of history here,” said the 44-year-old Mesa resident, who also works as a defensive coach for the Santa Barbara City College football team.

“We’ve got locals that go way back – three or four generations. A lot of people come in here and say, ‘My dad used to come in here,’ or ‘My grandfather used to come in here.’ You hear that all the time.”

One such patron is a 60-year-old man known as Mace. As a child, Mace would amble into Mel’s to get some loose change from his uncle.

But unlike some other regulars, Mace – who describes himself as a retired employee of the “shipping and receiving” industry – doesn’t get too sentimental about the potential demise of the drinking den he has been patronizing for some 40 years.

“Obviously people here drink, so it doesn’t really fit in with this mall,” he conceded, pointing to the nearby clothing stores, coffee shops, faux cobblestone pathways and the signature water fountain of the open-air shopping plaza. “I would like it to stay, but I understand. I’m a realist.”

If the rent hike – imposed by Santa Barbara Real Estate and Investment – left the Mel’s crowd jaded, the police department’s springtime recommendation to a state agency to deny the bar’s request to move into an empty lot in the 400 block of State Street only compounded the bitterness. The bar is still awaiting a final answer, but the state usually defers to the expertise of the local police force.

Further stirring the dander of the Mel’s crowd is an unconfirmed rumor that the Cheesecake Factory – which also sells liquor – will soon grace the lower State Street area.

“If you sell cheesecake you can move in – it doesn’t matter how much liquor you sell,” said Louie Giglio, another Vietnam vet. “It’s just the little guys getting the short end of the stick once again in Santa Barbara.”

Paul Casey, the city’s community development director, said he hadn’t heard the rumor about the Cheesecake Factory, although he added that the chain restaurant would not need the city’s permission to move in.

As for the police recommendation, Lt. Paul McCaffrey, the spokesman for the Santa Barbara Police Department, said it’s not that the city has anything against Mel’s, per se.

McCaffrey said the zone that includes the 400-to-600-block areas of State Street boasts the highest number of alcohol businesses anywhere in the state. The last thing the area needs, he said, is another bar that serves only drinks and no food.

Also, he said, the volume of criminal police calls in the lower State Street area – more than 2,000 in two years – is excessive. (In comparison, Mel’s has seen just eight criminal calls in three years, he said.)

“We’re not opposed to them moving, we just don’t want them to go there,” he said.

For their part, the Mel’s crowd will do their best to enjoy the last days in their den. What other choice do they have? And they’ll continue to do it with a slight sense of fatalistic irony.

Summing up the soul of Mel’s, Giglio put it this way:

“It’s a sunny spot for shady people.”

With that, he slapped the bar, gave out a self-satisfied hoot and stepped out into the afternoon sun for a smoke.