Introducing Legends Bar and Lounge
by Matt Kettmann
The off-State Street bar can be a wonderful thing, with neighborly crowds, familiar bartenders, strong drinks, a mellow vibe, and music that plays at a level where conversations can actually occur. It can, however, also be an unsavory place, where fights erupt over the next jukebox song, shifty characters occupy dark corners at all hours, and the bulge in the pocket of the guy on the next stool is more likely a shank than a cell phone. For Legends Bar and Lounge — located at 512 North Milpas Street near Haley — both of these descriptions ring a bell: The Eastside drinkery’s past life as The Mecca was shadowed by shady regulars and knife-y notoriety while its present and future as a neighborhood watering hole/live music hub is already the stuff of, well, off-State Street legends.
The shift from old to new is courtesy of Raul Jimenez, who, with the help of some backers, took over the bar, remodeled, and then reopened in August 2004 as Legends. Although he admitted that owning a bar is a fantasy for a lot of folks, this isn’t his dream-come-true. It’s just a unique opportunity to perhaps make enough cash to finally get out of the career he’s been in for nearly a decade now. “I don’t want to drive a beer truck all my life,” said Raul, who delivers lagers and ale for Coors.
But there’s certainly a sentimental side to the move, he admitted, having grown up just four blocks away and walked past The Mecca every day on his way to Santa Barbara Junior High and High School. Of course, for those who were daily regulars at that former bar, Raul’s changes — which included the removing of the semi-circle booths in favor of lounge-y couches and chairs and repainting the walls a deep red — have not been met entirely with glee. The former owner still comes in and has adjusted to the changes, but many of the regulars fled, fearing the sight of microbrewed draft beers, high-end liquors, more modern music, and a younger crowd. However, Raul assured that “the good people stayed.”
So, why the changes? “We want to be something like The Mercury Lounge,” he explained over a drink a few weeks back, “but still have our own identity.” Part of crafting that identity included opening a few weeks ago for coffee in the mornings, complete with all the espresso and latte fixings that you’d expect in a strictly coffee house. Despite The Mecca’s popularity as a morning haunt, Legends doesn’t want to serve alcohol in the mornings because it attracts a different crowd. (Unfortunately, the coffee bar idea didn’t take off and is now no longer on the menu.)
The bar stepped more toward The Merc’s example by bringing in live bands last October, a move that unveiled Legends to the music-loving masses and has steadily cultivated fans since. The roster of past gigs includes Matt McAvene, London Underground, Rebecca Kleinmann, the Messengers, Soledadeez, Sam Adams, The Coral Sea, and deejays spinning everything from funk to house. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a monthly art show hanging on the walls — complete with the typical gallery-type opening shindig — which attracts another segment of the population that always complains about the lack of venues for combined drinking and art appreciation. Other attractions include movie night on Mondays, an extensive Web site (legendsbarandlounge.com), and the surveillance camera out on the back patio that shoots images directly into a TV that hangs overlooking the bar. “Some people think it’s the Blair Witch movie,” said Raul, joking that it’s become an odd voyeuristic/exhibitionist tool between inside and out.
The formula appears to be working. “We’ve got everything from college kids to notable attorneys now,” said Raul. Still, he’s yet to turn a profit even though he works constantly, and likes to tell his customers, “When you come in and you don’t see me, that’s when I’m doing good.”
But Legends’ budding success isn’t just due to Raul’s openness to new ideas. It’s as much a testament to the desire we Santa Barbarans have for finding a watering hole we feel comfortable in, rather than getting lost in the mix of Top 40 music, watered down drinks, and writhing bodies that typifies a visit to State Street. Of course, there’s plenty of room and time in the week for both sorts of places, but it’s nice to know that places like Legends exist. We could use some more.
4·1·1 Legends Bar and Lounge is located at 512 N. Milpas St. Visit legendsbarandlounge.com or call 966-7317.