The Wayfarer: A House of Social Provisions
Written By: Kim Conlan
Photographed by: Mathew Doheny
Originally, The Wayfarer opened its doors to a public with baited breath in July 2014. Everyone wanted to see what new owner Jeffrey Chon, owner of The Alley in Newport Beach and Tabu Shabu in Costa Mesa, was going to do with the old Detroit Bar. Would it be a hipster gastropub? Would the stage and concerts remain? How would the layout change? And, ultimately, what kind of crowd would be attracted to the new space? Now six months later, all the skeptical chatter has finally begun to hush. The local Orange County scene has not only seemed to accept the evolution of Detroit Bar, but actually celebrate the renovated, warm and welcoming environment of The Wayfarer: A House of Social Provisions. With the combination of the hands-on hard work of in-house talent booker, Eric Keilman and owner Jeffrey Chon, a diverse crowd gathers. I sat down with Chon one afternoon at The Wayfarer to get his take on the progression of his newest endeavor, and what he is looking forward to for the rest of 2015.
Q: What are your ties to the OC and Costa Mesa area?
Jeffrey Chon: I originally came to Orange County from LA. I grew up in the South Bay area. I lived in Santa Monica after high school for a year and then I came down here and went to UC Irvine. By the time I got here I was kind of in my own world. I wasn’t that focused in school, I was a part-time real estate agent and also working in restaurants. I was a server and a bartender at Cheesecake Factory, and my interest in the hospitality industry was building. I still stayed involved in real estate, but I loved the restaurant, so I knew that eventually I would have to find a melding of those two passions. Then I graduated college, I kept working the real estate stuff, and then the opportunity, to take over The Alley in Newport Beach, was presented to me. I scrounged together and acquired it back in 2007. So I took that over and have been running it ever since. And then about three years ago I opened up Tabu Shabu in Eastside Costa Mesa. That was my first break where I was able to build something from scratch and trying to build a brand. Luckily (knocks on the wood table), it’s been very successful and been doing well. We brought a new style of cuisine and fun to that side of Costa Mesa.
Q: How did you get the opportunity to buy Detroit Bar?
JC: I took on this project—I’ve been friends with Dan Bradley, the previous owner, and the Memphis Group, for some time. There was some dialogue a long time ago before this happened. I kept my finger on the pulse and saw what was going on, and (Bradley) eventually presented the opportunity. I know that he wanted to start shrinking down a little bit—he was running four places at one time and had a new baby. He came and presented it to me and said, ‘I wanted to give you the first option of getting it.’
Q: What was your experience with Detroit Bar?
JC: I’ve been coming here since I went to UC Irvine. It was a cool music venue, and back then it was at its start. By the time I graduated and was living in OC, it was the place where big music came, right around 2005-2006. You had Modest Mouse and some heavy hitters visit. It always had a good reputation, but I never really hung out here unless it was to see something specific, so I knew that there was that kind of gap there, it was just a venue.
Q: Would you agree that this place has always been more about showcasing local talent?
JC: That’s the thing, people forgot what the essence of Detroit was originally. It was finding good local talent, and eventually get them an entrance into a large-scale venue where they can sell 2, 000 tickets. You don’t just go from selling zero tickets to 2, 000, there’s that in-between, and that’s what we wanted to be a part of. They did that for many years—with their Cold War Kids residency, Young the Giant, and all these guys who weren’t, at that time that big, and now are. It’s cool to say, ‘Hey I saw them here in this little 300 person venue in the corner of this strip center in Costa Mesa.’ I think a lot of the places on the Sunset Strip were the same way back in the day.
Q: Hidden gems?
JC: Yeah, I remember when I was in college, even in high school I think, we’d go up to Sunset at The Roxy, and The Whiskey and The Viper. I feel like we have that here. It takes a lot more work than it ever has before to keep that alive because, unfortunately, people don’t really like having to work for things anymore and don’t like having to discover. The process of discovery has kind of disappeared, and it has to do with technology and a whole bunch of other different things, and everything is so easily accessible. I think to some degree that’s hurt music, but at the same time, it’s just like old styles of clothes and the hipster kind of stuff that’s coming back. I think independent music will also have that revival.
Q: How did you know you were ready to buy Detroit Bar?
JC: I don’t think I was ever ready to do anything like that, you know? We’re still working, developing it, trying to make it what we see it as and what our vision is. So yeah, do I know that it was the right time? No, and I still don’t know if it was the right time. But it was Dan’s time to go, and it was a time when I had all this passion that I wanted to do it. So other than that, there’s nothing else you can do to prepare yourself for something like that other than to just go for it.
Q: There was that gap of Detroit closing and Wayfarer opening from February to July 2014. What was your overall image for this place? What did you see it being?
JC: Two of my favorite cities to travel to—and when I travel my traveling is primarily drinking and eating. That’s the gist of everything I do on my vacations. I don’t hike, I don’t surf, I eat and drink. Two of my favorite cities, to do that in, are Chicago and San Francisco. I love the culture, love what’s happening in the bar and music scenes. A lot of my inspiration came from San Fran and Chicago-style bars. We just wanted to create a cool place that everybody wanted to frequent. When I was in San Fran there is a bar up there called Dear Mom, which I really like. Another favorite bar of mine is called Zeitgeist. It’s not like you say that their bar is made of white Carrera marble, it’s nothing like that. It was just comfortable to be at and very neighborhood. You could tell the place was filled with a lot of locals. The food was good, the drinks were good, but it’s very casual, very come-as-you-are, welcoming, and that was what I wanted to create with Wayfarer.
Q: Did you see any issues in creating that environment?
JC: Detroit had the reputation of being a venue, but it wasn’t inviting as a place to just hang out. It was cool though, and I liked it, but I think after enough time has passed, things start to age, and it looked faded. Now, we have a lot of the warm, hanging vintage bulbs, and we wanted to create a place where people would want to be. People would come here and feel at home and not have to worry about anything. And even most of our shows are not big-ticket shows. It’s more, come by solo, have a beer, and watch some music for a little bit. It doesn’t have to be some big extravaganza. The décor and the theme were based on that—local neighborhood stuff.
Q: Even before Detroit Bar closed, people had their ideas on what needed changing in terms of the layout. How would you describe the way the floor plan has changed in here?
JC: First and foremost, the biggest thing, that I wanted to change, was the location of the bar. The location was not conducive to serving a large crowd. I wanted to make the bar very big and accessible, and I wanted it to be the primary focus of the place, because it’s a bar. I also wanted to get rid of the segmenting of the place. The community table in the middle was made to kind of keep that idea of making it friendly and local. Those were the initial thought-processes and everything else kind of came afterward. I knew that I wanted to raise this ceiling but did I know that there was a cool barrel roof up there? No, and I was excited to see that. A lot of it came up as I was going along, and I think I went further than I really initially intended, but I’m glad I did. Obviously another big thing, we did, was build a kitchen that never existed. The kitchen itself takes up a good amount of space. We knew that when we updated it that we would lose square-footage, plain and simple, but we created it to be so open so that it doesn’t seem like we lost space.
Q: It does feel much bigger and more accessible than it used to, especially with the location of the bar. Especially opening up the ceiling…
JC: That’s another thing, we were worried when we saw that ceiling, ‘What’s going to happen to the acoustics? How much are we going to change it?’ It worked out great, since that room is small; it reverberates out well. The sound-system is also fully updated with a full digital system. Our equipment is all from QSC, which is a local Costa Mesa based sound company, and their speakers are top-notch. We wanted to be impressive when we first opened; we didn’t want to half-ass anything. Are we still making ourselves better every day? Yeah, every day there are little changes and little tweaks that we’re doing. We’re getting closer and closer to the mark of where we want to be.
Q: What’s your response to people first thinking that you were opening a ‘gastropub’?
JC: Oh yeah, I got a lot of crap prior to opening. It was like, ‘Detroit…dun dun dun: it’s closing—and someone’s turning it into a gastropub!’ I saw that, and I was like, ‘What do you mean a gastropub? No one ever said it was going to be a gastropub!’ And it was because some blogger wrote that and then it just spun out of control. Then one of the very first things I did, I put on our marquee, ‘Not a gastropub.’ I did that as a joke to those people who kept saying, ‘Why are you turning it into a gastropub Jeff?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know where you’re getting this from, I never said gastropub.’
Q: What events, since you’ve opened, have you been most pleased with and what is upcoming that you’re excited about?
JC: I love our “Monday Night Residency.” It’s a chance for me to enjoy local music and enjoy the up-and-comers without necessarily having business costs on my mind, you know? Really, they’re designed to showcase what they want to do, and I think I have the most fun. This month we have Devious Means performing who are incredibly talented and great performers. We’ve also had so many good residencies like The Janks; they were one of my favorite residencies. During that month of their residency, they opened up for Kings. Obviously there have been a couple of shows that I really enjoyed. I also loved seeing Fenix TX, because that brought me to back in the day. Some of our House nights are fun. It wouldn’t be the music I listen to all the time, but I’ve learned to appreciate it more now.
Q: Is that with MDA (Modern Disco Ambassadors)?
JC: We do MDA, but we also use another group called Swerve, and they trade off each Friday. We’ve had some really notable acts. Sweater Beats was a fun night, and I know they played HARD right before so they had a good following after that. There’s very little I’ve been displeased with when it comes to music. I’ve been proud of what we have to offer, and I look forward to this year. We have met so many good local bands that are so damn good, the more, the merrier.
Q: Obviously the music is the focus, but how has the addition of the food menu, including brunch, changed the feel of things?
JC: I would say that we see a crowd for happy hour now, which is cool. We get a lot of guys that pop in after work at 5 o’clock. We do a good food program here, you know, burgers, fries, and cool little appetizers. We’re not doing T-bones or filets or king crab gnocchi—we’re not going over-the-top, fine dining by any means, but we did want to create good home-cooked food. None of our stuff is frozen, and it’s not like ‘fryer’ bar food either. We have a lot of people here that can come in and get a burger, play a game of pool, drink a beer, and they’re out of here by 7 o’clock. They are not interested in what you’re doing at 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock at night. They just come in here; they relax and play the giant Jenga near the stage area. Sometimes we get a little group that comes in and plays corn-hole and just screws around and has a few beers. I think the food was necessary for that. It’s probably been our biggest challenge because Detroit Bar had such a long-standing legacy of being open at 8 o’clock at night. We do the early happy hour, and then later we do a show.
Q: How has the reaction been to the food and opening up earlier?
JC: The reaction to our food has been great, everyone has been on-board about it. We have a new menu with a couple new items. We have a meatloaf sandwich, which we cook in-house and is really good stuff, and a new pastrami sandwich. It’s not like we go outside the box all that much, but it’s fun. We still try to keep it the neighborhood local bar scene, even on Sunday brunch. We just offer good brunch food and champagne, and we do a matinee show at 4 o’clock. It’s something that’s always a work in progress, and we’re figuring it out, but there are a lot of cool different crowds coming in for the different segments, and that’s fun.
Q: What is your favorite bite and what is your favorite drink here at Wayfarer?
JC: I love the avocado fries. They are so simple and not complicated and not heavy feeling. I’m a big fan of the meatloaf sandwich that’s coming onto the menu. I love our burgers, I mean all of them are really just simple and easy and perfect sizes, but I would say the avo fries and the meatloaf sandwich. Then for drink, you know I’m a shot and a beer kind of guy, so we have a Boilermaker special, which is the popular thing. It’s ten bucks, and it gets you a shot of Beam, Jameson or Bulleit along with any of our craft beers. We have twelve taps here that we circulate all the time. It’s constant every week, and it’s not like we’re taking it too serious, being like, ‘Let’s do beer tastings and make sure these are perfect.’ We’re an hour away from San Diego, which is the craft beer capitol of the world. In Costa Mesa, you have that Barley Forge Brewery that just opened up right down the street on Bristol too. My friend opened up a brewery in San Diego called 32 North, and in Fullerton, you have Bootleggers and Valiant in Orange. Music is a lot like food, is a lot like drink, and is a lot like art. It is what you make of it, and you appreciate it for what it is. If I had to choose a favorite cocktail, I love our #1. It’s right up my alley with whiskey, ginger beer, genuine maraschino cherry juice, a lot of lime and some cherry bitters.
Q: 2015 seems like it’s going to be a good year for you?
JC: I think so. My talent buyer, Eric Keilman, who has done a phenomenal job, is here for every production. It’s because he has a passion for music, and so both of us really enjoy always being around and seeing the crowds, and being a part of it. I think both of us can look back one day and be really proud of the fact that we were a part of it. I’ll be honest; December was a very big turning point for us. In December, I was like, ‘Wow, we’re making some waves.’ We had some back to back-to-back sold-out weekends, and seeing that is so reassuring.
Q: The feel here is a bit more old-school.
JC: Exactly. Even our staff, they’re not dressed in suspenders and bow-ties, it’s come-as-you-are, and there’s not that attitude you find some places. Cool is what you make of it.
The Wayfarer: A House of Social Provisions
843 W. 19th St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
For booking at The Wayfarer, contact email@example.com
For a schedule of live shows, check www.wayfarercm.com