As dives go, the Stag in Costa Mesa is a rough-cut gem, more valued than ever by an influx of twentysomething nouveau swingers caught up in the revival of sleazy lounge bars.
Not to be confused with that other Stag a few miles down the road in Newport Beach, the Costa Mesa bar has been a stop on the barhopping circuit since it opened 35 years ago and has ever since catered to an exuberant cocktail crowd. (Originally known as the Fling, it changed names in 1990.)
This is, after all, a place where the partying starts before lunch and longtime regulars are amazed to discover that there's forever been an awning hanging over the bar.
While this barfly's dark sanctuary has been infiltrated by a trendy batch, the hard-core regulars still hold court at the bar, looking alternately perplexed, annoyed and bemused by the youthful invasion. In the last year, some weekends have even witnessed long lines to get in.
Tom Tunstall, the owner who took over in 1991, says he's "absolutely baffled" by the interest. "I guess they love that it's an old, cheap, sleazy saloon," he says.
Cheap is right when it comes to the business of imbibing. There are 15 imported and domestic beers on tap, served in curvaceous 23-ounce glasses for $3 and $4. By the bottle, it's $2.25 for anything from the Bud, Coors and Miller families and Corona. A glass of wine and most cocktails run about $2.25, and calls are a quarter more. And the Stag staff takes pleasure in concocting a potent order, unlike most any other bar around.
If the drinks don't prove dizzying, then maybe the dynamic of the new and regular crowd will. There are fashion mavens mixing with blue-collar folks and glamorous punk-types tossing them back with even more glamorous senior citizens.
Not that everyone is welcoming the newcomers. Even some younger patrons who've been coming for years lament the Stag's booming popularity. The place has lost some of the strange atmosphere and even stranger characters that once recalled a David Lynch film.
Even the decor has changed somewhat: There are plants and more sports-related paraphernalia. Nostalgic reminders of the Stag's former self are the assorted mounted antlers (hence the bar's name) and the signs out front that spell out "Stag" in white bulbs (some flickering, others burned out) and "ocktail."
Most weekends it's too crowded to enjoy, let alone getting to the bar without squeezing and shoving one's way there.
Though the coin-operated bumper pool and three standard pool tables are a side attraction to the weekend action, the main reason they pile in Friday and Saturday nights is Luis Moreno, who has fingered standard favorites on his organ keyboard for the last six years, punctuated by his signature purring growl and Spanish accent.
Fans sit around the organ bar, elbows on the cushioned edge, shaking the maracas and other hand-held instruments.
When Moreno isn't around, a jukebox loaded with everything from the Chieftains to Johnny Cash to Queen provides the groove.
* THE STAG
* 145 E. 19th St., Costa Mesa.
* (714) 631-9813.
* Open daily, 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.
* No cover.