Rebirth of the Milpas Mecca

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.

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