Blackie’s, the Blue Beet, the Crab Cooker and Charlie’s Chili: these are the four NB joints for the ages.– By Patrick Mott | Photos By Jody Tiongco
To wander around the two-block neighborhood that’s anchored at the base of the Newport Beach Pier is to realize, sometimes suddenly, that those two blocks contain just about everything one could want to support a comfortably indolent way of life.
It’s almost absurdly Southern Californian: a classic pier, a nearly perfect beach with decent waves on good days, shops that sell beach clothing (which is really all you’ll ever need), a crackerjack little fishing fleet, and delightful views everywhere you look, both natural and human.
And a handful of superlative places to hang out. Not just flavor-of-the-month beachside snack stands, but real joints—places that might have served your parents, and maybe your grandparents when they decided to come down for the day to catch a few rays and ogle each other. Places to eat and drink and cut loose a little and build some memories. Places you see and smell and taste in your dreams. Everyone who loves the neighborhood will, of course, have their favorites. Here are four of the finest.
BLACKIE’S AT THE BEACH
That’s the full name of one of the most iconic bars on the SoCal coast. When it was first opened in 1953 by William “Blackie” Blackstock, the bar was open only June through August to accommodate summer crowds, and its sign was said to be the only landmark visible on shore to nearby surfers, who named the adjacent strand Blackies Beach.
In 1964 the bar was sold to the current owner, Chuck Frei, who kept Blackie’s open year-around, opening it to the local business crowd. “A lot of business types would come in here at the time wearing their suits,” says Les Bobbitt, Blackie’s manager for 35 years. “We didn’t have a phone here for a long, long time and they used to come down here to get away from the office and their secretaries, or so their wives couldn’t get hold of them. We have some of the richest people in Orange County in here but you would never know it because they come in casual as can be.”
Blackie’s continues to cater to a mostly summertime crowd, says Bobbitt. Winter weather can slow down business considerably, particularly several days of rain when many of the regulars “stay home and buy themselves a 12-pack of beer and watch soap operas.” They would, however, miss Blackie’s—count ‘em—15 TV monitors.
Rain or shine, however, Blackie’s boasts of serving “the coldest beer in town,” says Bobbitt. “I could probably drop the temperature another one or two degrees,” he says, “but the light beer on tap would freeze.” How wide is Blackie’s appeal? Regular patron John Watson recalls receiving a postcard from Australia when he was working as a bartender at Blackie’s in the early 1980s. The card was addressed simply to “John at Blackie’s, Newport Beach.”
THE CRAB COOKER
It’s almost impossible to miss this place at the corner of 22nd Street and Newport Boulevard, with its screaming fire engine red-and-white paint scheme and its famous fish-shaped sign atop the roof that reads, “Don’t Look Up Here” (put up there by Bob Roubian, the founder of the place, who knew everybody would). It’s the best-known fish market/restaurant in town, and if there’s not a line out the front door when you visit, there soon will be.
But there are no reservations. Ever. Ask former President Richard Nixon. On a visit to his San Clemente estate during his tenure in the White House in the early ’70s, Nixon requested reservations at the Crab Cooker. He was politely turned down—to the consternation of some, says current manager Steve Bolton, Roubian’s nephew. One upshot: John Wayne, a faithful customer and lover of Crab Cooker clam chowder, stopped going to the restaurant. His wife, Pilar, says Bolton, would buy the chowder and bring it home.
Since The Crab Cooker opened in its current location in 1958 (it originally opened near what is now the 28th Street marina in 1951), most customers (which have included James Cagney, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder and Steve Martin) have not been so picky. They continue to arrive in droves to buy fresh seafood that arrives daily from various waters around the world. They eat it on simple paper plates in a whimsical dining room filled with various pieces of art and wood carvings done by the founder himself. The Crab Cooker remains a family operation. Bolton, who has run the business since 1985, oversees his two sons at the NB store. A second Crab Cooker, which opened in Tustin in 1993, is run by Bolton’s cousin and her husband, who have brought their daughter into the business.
“So far we’ve stood the test of time because we’ve been consistent in what we do,” says Bolton. “I hope we can continue that for a long time.”
Sitting cheerfully at the very base of the pier since 1970, the snug little restaurant was for years the place hard-partying folks came for late-evening fortifying bowls of red to either keep the party going or bring them back to life. Today the menu has expanded to include what Charlie’s modestly calls “possibly the world’s greatest chili-cheese omelet” and serves an overflow breakfast and weekend clientele as well as a steady stream of daily beachgoers.
Opening at 7 a.m. daily, Charlie’s serves an average of 500 breakfasts on a typical summer day, says manager Sean Farman, whose family has operated the restaurant for the last 24 years. “In the summertime we’re packed all day,” says Farman. “We open the door and they just come pouring in.”
Charlie’s Chili first opened on Balboa Island in 1967 as a small takeout spot run by local bartender Pete Torre. His chili quickly became a local favorite, and when the business moved to the pier in 1970, so did the crowds.
Today, says Farman, who has been running the business for the last two years, the chili remains the touchstone of a much-expanded menu, and the chili-cheese omelet is the current star. During the days of the Christmas Boat Parade in Newport Harbor, when party skippers and bayside hosts need to warm up their guests, Charlie’s regularly gets requests for 50 gallons or more of the stuff, he says.
THE BLUE BEET
This snug little joint claims to be the oldest bar in Newport Beach. Built in 1912—the same year the Titanic sank—the Blue Beet has a colorful (and not always law-abiding) history. The current owner, Steve Lewis, has happily kept the place on the straight and narrow, serving up signature steaks and keeping the place jumping every night with live rock and blues bands. But a critical look around the place can reveal a past that was not as seemly.
The Blue Beet, originally known as Stark’s, was a combination speakeasy and brothel in its early years. Stark, the stories go, wanted to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that his place was well and truly a saloon, so he bought an ornate wooden bar from a gold rush saloon in Cripple Creek, Colo., shipped it to Newport Beach and had it installed.
In the mid-1960s, Sid Soffer bought the Beet and quickly dismissed the 24-hour poker game that had supposedly been going on continuously in one room since 1912. He also bid goodbye to “Dollar Dolly,” a prostitute who was a familiar face at the bar. The place became Sid’s Blue Beet and was known for its stroganoff and top-flight musical acts.
Still, continuing a kind of tradition, Soffer (who also owned a quirky restaurant on Old Newport Boulevard) fell afoul of the law in his own right. Accused of building code violations and threatened with jail, he absconded to Las Vegas, where he died in 2007 at age 74. The Blue Beet, closed for a time and reopened in 1998 under the ownership of Lewis.
Soffer’s spirit, clandestine as ever, still has a place at the Blue Beet. Among dozens of striking photographs of famous personalities—from Elvis and Jackie O to Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan—over one arching doorway are painted the words, “Sid ain’t here…Don’t ask.” What’s past is past. The modern Blue Beet enjoys enough of a law-abiding reputation that, one night after their 2007 victory in the Stanley Cup finals, a group of Anaheim Ducks players visited the Blue Beet—and brought the cup with them. ,