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In Search of Swank: From Crooning to Cocktails : The county has its share of moody piano bars with their low lighting, vinyl booths and soothing retro melodies.


The piano has been drinking, not me.

--Tom Waits

A good piano bar is hard to find. Scouting out any piano bar in Ventura County can be tricky. The Yellow Pages are useless. They offer Karaoke and Cocktail Lounges, Nightclubs and Coffeehouses. But when it comes to key-tickling crooners, nothing. The listings skip from Pianos to Picnic Grounds.

We all know how to find--or avoid--canned music, grinding rock and throbbing beats. But where to go for the comfort of a slick-tongued, smooth-toned piano man? For a dose of Sinatra-style sounds? Isn't everybody in the mood, once in a while, for the dreamy lift of a little "Body and Soul," "As Time Goes By" or "Makin' Whoopee?"

There was a time when piano bars were almost as easy to come by as a cocktail. That was back in the days when socializing and bar-stool warming were more acceptable endeavors. And the people who love the piano bar style were young enough to indulge in regular nights on the town.

Nowadays just a handful of piano bars remain, scattered across the county in unlikely places. They bear no resemblance to the brash and trendy L.A. lounges, crawling with fickle scenesters. No, these are moody, low-key places where the patrons return with Cheers-like regularity. Of the five I visited, each has its own character--and characters, which I will get to shortly.

But first, some basic piano bar criteria. There are lots of places where you can hear somebody pound a keyboard, but it takes something more to qualify as a bona fide piano bar.

A piano, or some convincing electronic imitation, must be the dominant instrument. The player must be a regular, appearing week-in and week-out at the same locale. That person must croon--not well, necessarily, but the effort has to be there. And to complete the scene, the piano must be situated within easy staggering distance of a good liquor supply.

There are a few secondary characteristics, not imperative but certainly adding to the piano bar vibe: low lights, a dance floor, deep red banquettes and a jumbo-size cognac glass for tips.


The banquettes at McCarthy's are baby blue, but other than that, the Camarillo restaurant meets every piano bar standard and more. Player Loren Richards sports a tuxedo shirt, white bow tie and an easy smile. He's been playing by ear for 50 years and will "only perform songs by people who are dead."

The setting is intimate. Richards performs without a microphone, and the piano sits within arm's reach of white-clothed dinner tables. This is good for Richards, who will sing in a pinch, but prefers to leave the warbling to his enthusiastic regulars.

"I would rather be playing the piano than anything else in the world," he says. "Playing for people who really enjoy what I'm doing makes it all worthwhile."

Topmost among them is Paula Jones, a Camarillo music therapist who shows up every week to belt out a few numbers in a rich, almost operatic voice. On a recent Friday night, Jones and three friends settle in at the head table.

Taking her cues from Richards, the classically trained singer launches into "Can't Help Lovin' that Man of Mine."

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly.

I've gotta love one man 'til I die.

Can't help lovin' that man of mine.

Mid-song, a waiter stops by to take the dinner order. Without missing a beat, Jones holds up the menu and selects an entree, even finding time to throw a "thanks, honey" at the waiter between stanzas.

By all rights, Jones should get paid for her performance, which draws enthusiastic applause from dozens of diners. But for Jones, the enjoyment comes in doing it for fun. "I could do it for pay, but then it would be work," she says. "This way it is pure enjoyment."

Jones' companions agree. She met Lorraine and Ted Radabaugh at McCarthy's, and their love of the music has made them fast friends. Now they regularly share a table, and when Lorraine walks in, Richards acknowledges her entrance with a swinging rendition of "Sweet Lorraine."

"You feel like a queen, you really do," Lorraine says. "There's just something so special about a place like this."

The soup arrives just as Jones prepares to launch into "Summertime." With steam rising from the bowl, Jones begins to sway. She throws her head back and moans.

Your daddy's rich, and your mama's good lookin' .

So hush little baby, don't you cry.


A little weeping would fit right in at Azar's Red Robin in Newbury Park, where the sound is heavily influenced by country and the blues.

Opened in a strip mall several years ago by Lebanese immigrant Michael Azar, the place is a curious mix of sports and piano bar. There are seven TVs stationed around the windowless dining/bar area. Jock posters fill the walls, and a crowd of athletic-looking guys in shorts and sneakers guzzle brews at the bar.

But at 8:30 p.m. Greg Barton appears, and slowly the transformation begins. The televisions are silenced, the lights dimmed and older couples appear, quickly filling the half-dozen red vinyl booths.

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