The best bar stories are seldom straightforward narratives. They’re usually a pastiche of facts, half-truths, and exaggerations cobbled together from fractured oral histories made increasingly brittle through time (especially when those passing them along have enjoyed a tipple or two). Sometimes, they create a confluence of time, place, and context compelling enough to encourage further exploration, partially due to the story being so funky and weird that it leaves you hoping it’s legit. You never know where or when these stories may arise; when they do, trips down rabbit holes in search of the complete story may not suffice. You may find yourself spelunking to deepen the well.
The Blue Beet in Newport Beach, Calif., contains such a tale. Or, more specifically, the narrow three-story building that hosts the bar currently known as The Blue Beet. It’s a tale built around a legendary poker game that started when the building opened its doors to imbibers in 1912 and didn’t end until the mid-1960s. I was not aware of this story until about a month ago, when I visited the space for the first time and the bartender serving me dropped the narrative into my consciousness. Her details were vague, other than the game took place in a back room away from the bar. It didn’t matter. I was immediately obsessed with knowing more and informed her as such. “You’re going to have to speak with the owner,” she replied. “He knows more about the game. He’s off the next couple days but he’ll be in on Wednesday at around 5.”
Her words gave me hope and excitement. They would eventually bring diminishing returns. But oddly enough, they’d also provide the framework for a different, richer story — one whose eclectic parts come together in a way that demonstrates the unique communal anchor that only a neighborhood bar can provide.
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A Reminder of the Past
Today’s Newport Beach is a coastal playground for the wealthy. Situated on the Orange County shoreline, its population teems with successful C-suite types, venture capitalists who got lucky, and blinged-up aspiring Real Housewives prone to gulping down buttery goblets of Rombauer Chardonnay over lunch while watching yachts cruise the harbor. It’s the modern top deck of the Titanic.
The Newport Beach of 1912, on the other hand, was the Titanic’s boiler room. It was a working-class seaport that welcomed hardy fishermen more likely to injure their pinkie finger on the job than sticking it out as they drank. The city was slowly crafting a reputation as a vacation destination at the time thanks to Los Angeles extending its old Pacific Electric Railway service to the Orange County coast, but its hardscrabble roots stood firm. The soul of this rugged community was McFadden Wharf, a man-made bay built on an elongated, crooked finger of a peninsula and dotted by a pier. Clusters of buildings stood yards from the wharf, and they offered workers restaurants and bars at which to eat and drink, brothels to enjoy overnight company, and — according to legend — a pharmacy to ward off any unwanted souvenirs from such temporary companionship. The Blue Beet made no bones about tapping into this energy. Originally called Stark’s after its initial owner Henry Stark, it established itself as a rough-and- tumble, anti-establishment saloon with an Old West spark, complete with a vintage back bar setup that Stark purchased in Cripple Creek, Colo. It was only natural for legends about the space to form over the years. Some of these are quite fun, such as its supposed status as a part-time bordello and the ghostly tale of an old-time sex worker dubbed “Dollar Dolly” haunting the joint. The legend of the perpetual poker game reigns supreme — in my mind, at least.
My initial research reveals the game’s framework. The poker game started up in one of the building’s back rooms in 1912, the same year Stark’s opened. When it closed to imbibers between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., the owners shut the door between the bar and the game to cut off access to the former (whether they did this to hide the players from view or to discourage excessive after-hours drinking is not exactly known). The game kept rolling through Prohibition. So did the bar, which was on-brand but not uncommon — several watering holes along the peninsula housing McFadden Wharf blew off the 18th Amendment, to the point where slinging booze was an open secret that local police routinely ignored. The game continued until the mid-1960s, when new ownership rechristened it Sid’s Blue Beet and put the kibosh on the gaming shenanigans. It’s a strong skeleton of a narrative, but I’m looking for flesh. I show up on that Wednesday as suggested, eager for more intel.
Walking up to The Blue Beet today still evokes the feeling of going somewhere illicit. It’s tucked away in a brick alley, surrounded by street-facing establishments that hide it from tourists and passers-by. The bar’s interior changed because it had to — a fire gutted the space in 1986, although remnants of the old Cripple Creek bar purportedly remain. Still, the space holds fast to its roots by exuding a divey vibe. This was evident during my numerous visits to the space. Regulars greeted by name order “the usual.” Industry types plop down for a beer, a shot, and a platform to swap stories about the evening’s most frustrating customers. The barkeep from the spot down the road drops in and asks to borrow a bottle of amaro like a suburbanite requesting a cup of sugar. The bartenders chiefly pour beers and neat drams of whiskeys with billboard budget money, but a few of them will talk in-depth about the joys of dropping $300 on a highly allocated bottle of esoteric juice. It feels warm and comfortable.
There’s one thing missing: the owner who has more inside baseball on that damn 40-plus year poker game. He’s not there when I show up. This becomes a frustratingly recurring pattern. Every visit and phone call I make is specifically done to seek out the owner. Each attempt gets rebuffed with a riff on the same narrative: “The owner’s not here now. We don’t know if he’ll be in today. He comes and goes as he pleases, but he should be in tomorrow.”
A Futile Chase; a New Direction
I swing by The Blue Beet once again. This isn’t a chore, mind you. I’ve grown fond of the place since I started pursuing the story three weeks prior — plus, they make a mean burger. Yet as I settle into my barstool and start looking around, I start to suspect that the same no-owner narrative is coming. The two bartenders behind the stick confirm this. I share my primary purpose for the visit. Thankfully, if not surprisingly, they haphazardly sputter out information that simultaneously enhance and contradict the basic account. One bartender mentions Newport Beach’s mayor and fire chief would routinely stop by and get in on a few hands. The other bartender suggests the game took place on the second floor, which doesn’t quite fit since the original story implies the gambling occurred in a room on the ground floor next to the bar. After a couple more minutes of lurching banter marked by hems and haws, one of the bartenders says, “You know, the guy that would know more about what you’re looking for is Sid.”
He pauses. “Sid died several years ago.”
This doesn’t help — I’m not a medium — but Sid ends up giving me plenty of material to work with despite his present condition.
Sid was former Blue Beet owner Sid Soffer, the “Sid” in “Sid’s Blue Beet.” He was the guy who broke up the poker game. He also allegedly told Dollar Dolly to take her business elsewhere back in the day. These elements could easily make him the villain of this fractured, mythos-infused narrative. Miraculously, it does not. Sid grew The Blue Beet’s legend by infusing it with his own notoriety. He refused to serve condiments to accompany the food on the menu — a practice he also put into place at the steakhouse he owned — and he was rumored to 86 the occasional patron who dared ask for ketchup. He brought live music and entertainment to the venue and managed to land some intriguing acts, including a stand-up set from Steve Martin and a solo performance by ex-Monkee Peter Tork. He also tapped into The Blue Beet’s anti-establishment ethos by being a gadfly on the rump of Newport Beach’s city council. He’d show up to nearly every meeting and squabble about any item he deemed worthy of complaint. It’s said that he created so much long-winded chaos, the council implemented a rule limiting community speakers to three minutes.
What Soffer complained about were often things of his own doing, such as health-department shutdowns and building code violations. These latter violations caught up with him, eventually earning him a bench warrant from a local judge. Ever the maverick, he fled to Las Vegas to dodge the warrant, where he stayed until his death in 2007. He sold the business after splitting town — the new owners dropped the “Sid’s” from the moniker — but he never sold the building. All this simply solidified his local legacy as a gruff, no-nonsense, beloved rebel who would’ve likely captured the admiration of the old salts from McFadden Wharf, even if he was the guy who broke up the poker game.
A Mystery That’s Meant to Be
I never did connect with The Blue Beet’s owner. The gaps that could make the account of the decades-long year poker game a fuller tale still exist. And honestly, that’s perfectly fine. In fact, it is perhaps for the best. There are just enough written anecdotes out there to know that the game happened, but not knowing all the details preserves the lengthy game as a piece of The Blue Beet’s greater legend. It’s an over-100-year mythology built on booze, gambling, prostitution, entertainment, grit, defiance, and old-school community, self-contained within a skinny brick structure secluded from seaside tourists. Having a weird, funky tale with a murky narrative tucked within that lore suits it rather well.