The space at 5871 Hollister Avenue in Goleta had been occupied by Gus’s Cocktail Lounge since the building was constructed in 1957. It was, by all accounts, a real dive.
When the grimy watering hole hit the rental market in the mid-’90s, it was hardly Dawn O’Brien’s ideal location for a follow-up to her downtown bar, Elsie’s. Yet the turnkey solution ultimately proved too tempting to pass up.
“When are you ever going to get the chance to rent a bar?” O’Brien recalled. “The bar was there; the back bar was there; the soffit was there. Those are the difficult things.”
O’Brien signed the lease and The Mercury Lounge opened in August 1995. From the outset, it was something of a neighborhood non sequitur — a meticulously curated gallery of mid-century modern furnishings serving craft beer and wine in the midst of a predominantly working-class, Latino area of Old Town.
The Mercury Lounge — or “the Merc” as its regulars tend to call it — quickly developed a reputation as a “grad school bar” (apparently one can’t throw around words like Foucault and hegemony in just any old place) and the scene of an unusually quiet sophistication. Leaving behind the cacophony of Hollister’s bustling traffic and entering the bar was like walking into a particularly lavish living room set from Mad Men, low-lit by vintage table lamps and scored by Édith Piaf on crackling vinyl. The net effect was something akin to blood-pressure-attenuating ASMR. In a world full of bars meant to excite and agitate, the Mercury Lounge was soothing.
It was, simply put, the first cool place in Goleta.
If one can apply cinema’s auteur theory to a bar, then O’Brien was surely the Mercury Lounge’s Hitchcock, whose creative fingerprints were visible on every inch of the place, from the hand-painted matchbooks and just-so arrangements of ceramic tchotchkes to the cursive “M” painstakingly poured into the froth of every Guinness.
And so it was with some trepidation that the Merc’s longtime patrons learned that the bar had been sold in September 2018. Would the new owner preserve O’Brien’s decorative details? Would the bar lose its retro kitsch? Was the Mercury Lounge doomed to become just another sports bar?
Fortunately, those anxieties were revealed to be unfounded as the bar came under the ownership of O’Brien’s friends and Mercury Lounge regulars Jennifer and Patrick Housh, who are committed to maintaining the spot’s distinctive aesthetic.
“I mean, we’d be crazy to change it,” says Jennifer Housh. “Dawn did such an amazing job. Why would we want to come in and change it?”
Indeed, even the bar’s most consistent customers have failed to register any sense of loss subsequent to the sale.
“We haven’t really noticed a change,” says Joanne Murray, who has been coming to the Merc since its first year in business. “It still maintains that great funkiness.”
Thus far, the few alterations made have been generally additive rather than transformative — more beer on tap, more art on the walls, and significantly more live events. With a calendar stacked full of local and touring bands, the new iteration of the Mercury Lounge has emerged as one of the area’s more viable music venues.
“There’s really not that many music venues in Santa Barbara anymore, like there used to be, and outlets for smaller bands,” Housh explained. “So it was important to us to bring that in.”
With its imminently welcoming environment, the bar continues to feature one of the more diverse clientele in town, drawing its customer base from an eclectic mix of Old Town residents, UCSB faculty, rockabilly scenesters, and anyone with an appreciation for good drinks in a great atmosphere.
“It’s really fun getting to look at everybody sitting at the bar on any given night,” says Housh, “because some nights you may have a dishwasher that just wants to come in after work and enjoy a cold beer sitting next to a Nobel Prize–winning physicist. And everybody’s equal.”
Uniting this ragtag gang of regulars is the collective relief that the Mercury Lounge will continue to be what it’s always been: one of the Central Coast’s very best bars.
Even the Merc’s original proprietor can rest easy, knowing that her creation has come under the caring guidance of like-minded owners. “I feel that the spirit and the character lives on,” said O’Brien, “in capable, loving hands.”