A prodigal son returning to Bilbo Baggins after a few years away finds it pretty much the same in 1991 as it was in 1988.
This place doesn't change much, but for most who come here, that's a comfort.
Vince Hicks is a nine-year fixture who manages the place and handles the modest bar three nights a week, businesslike but not hard to know. And Pierre still works Wednesday and Saturday nights; he serves drinks well enough, but his instant familiarity with the clientele takes him to another level.
At night, Bilbo's is always semi-filled with people of any age above 21. Until 8, they can supplement the drinks with perfectly good bar food--including Thursday night prime rib for $6.95 and steak for $5.95. After the kitchen closes, they manage to rustle up pretzels or other munchies if you need them.
No video game revolution here. They've had the same Milipede and trivia--or close relatives--sitting in a corner for quite some time.
And up front, the thing that sets Bilbo's apart: live music beginning at 9 every night except Monday.
Brent Folsom doesn't book or officially supervise the entertainment--that's handled by owner Jim Esposito--but Folsom is the spiritual leader, whether he's hanging around down at the end of the bar near the stage or up there at the microphone himself.
Usually two nights a week--Wednesday and maybe Thursday--Folsom is the vocal centerpiece of what is essentially a jam session.
You rarely see the same band twice, although there is a solid core built around lead guitarist Clay James (you can often find James, in wireless mode, standing next to you at the bar while wailing away).
They do some original stuff, but a recurring theme is the '70s--Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Jethro Tull, et al--with sidetracks into blues and harder-edged rock and roll. It's the right sound level for the smallish room and the right era for most of the customers. And these guys aren't amateurs; they're good at it.
There's no real dance floor, although people work around this, particularly on weekends. It is then that Folsom and his cohorts usually yield to more formal bands that are apt to play more current Top 40, a bit younger and a lot louder. The place fills to the point where the bartenders and waitresses can be pushed to the limit and the age demographics are lowered considerably.
Tuesday is "Open Mike Night," the performers ranging from talented to interesting to awful. (Some really bad acts return week after week, to the point that people simply get used to them.)
Bilbo's serves 12 kinds of bottled beer, Budweiser on tap, a diverse selection of liquor and generic red and white wine. No amusing little Pinot Noirs.
In the afternoons and on Monday nights, Bilbo's is a neighborhood sports bar, with regular types drinking regular beer and watching football or basketball on one of six televisions, including one big screen. There's a certain schizophrenia, given the transformation that occurs after 9--but then again, a lot of the guys hang around for a set or two before heading home.
Finally, if you want out of the smoke and sound, you can hit the door and either sit at patio chairs just outside in the middle of the Mesa Verde Center or walk 20 more feet to a huge set of windows and catch broomball, hockey or an Olympic figure-skating hopeful on the Ice Capades Chalet rink below.
Bilbo Baggins, 2701 Harbor Blvd., Suite F1, Costa Mesa. Open daily 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. (714) 545-1718.