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Dawn O’Brien: Design on Her Mind

Owner of Elsie’s, The Mercury Lounge, and The Imperial


After working at Zelo on State Street and as an art restorationist, O’Brien broke out on her own in the early 1990s by opening Elsie’s and The Mercury Lounge, both under-the-radar, craft-beer-before-it-was-even-a-thing bars that thrive to this day. In 2013, she took over the shell of the Bak Dor ​— ​a dive bar in every sense of the phrase ​— ​behind the old Sizzler on Hollister Avenue in Old Town Goleta, and she built a retro cocktail palace.

Here’s how she does it:

What’s first? I take out what I don’t want. That left me a pretty hollow shell!

A centerpiece? Then I usually find a piece of some kind ​— ​something interesting always comes along ​— ​and that dictates which way to go, as does the room itself. In this case, it was a big, gold sconce that was from The Firebird [a Cota Street bar she opened in the early 2000s]. Also, I found a killer couch. It fit perfectly.

Storage unit? I’m always hunting, so you have to have one.

Why vintage? It’s so well made and people feel that. Nowadays, everything is so disposable. My cash register is almost 70 years old, and it works like a champ. People feel that quality on a subliminal level somehow.

Outdoor seating? The patio changed every­thing. I got to bring all my vintage rattan furniture from home. We were really lucky.

The City of Goleta was so encouraging!

Design to drink? We’re drawing from classic cocktails. We’re using the highest quality and freshest of everything we can get out hands on. That combined with the base of classic cocktails makes for a beautiful thing.

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