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Saddle Up for Sagebrush

It's a Mexican restaurant, a party patio, a sports bar, a biker hangout and a music venue all in one.

May 06, 1999|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded," he could have been talking about the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas.

The first known tourist, Juan De Anza, beat the crowds when he camped nearby in 1776, or back when California had plenty of free parking. In the 1920s, the Sagebrush's parking lot held a group of small stores built by one Lester Agoure. It was also the site of the local jail, and the hanging tree still stands, albeit dead. Now this area is called Old Town Calabasas, even though it's just another one of those ubiquitous yup-scale developments.

The Sagebrush appeared on the landscape 25 years ago and is as popular as ever. The only time there's a cover at the Sagebrush is--get this--on Sunday afternoon. No day of rest there.

There's more roaring at the Sagebrush on Sundays than at a football game, too. At the Sagebrush, though, it's a zillion motorcycles causing the ruckus. These are not a bunch of yuppie-scaring, tattooed bikers, but rather well-behaved riders--doctors and lawyers, maybe--who can actually afford to have their Harleys repaired when Harleys do what Harleys tend to do, break down.

Jim Ray has heard the Harleys roar countless times. He has been affiliated with the place since 1982 and books the bands. "I think the Sagebrush is an end-of-the-ride destination, and also a reason to ride," he says.

It is not uncommon to wait for an hour or more to get inside the Sagebrush on a Sunday afternoon, and five bucks is not an unreasonable toll to be fashionably late. The doorman--the guy with the fistful of fivers--has heard every excuse in the book, so save it, just be patient or get there before 2 p.m. when the cover charge kicks in.

Just inside the door lies Party Central, a huge tarp-covered patio with tables of varying sizes. What initially appears to be birds at the height of bad manners instead turns out to be an intricate overhead misting system--a lifesaver on one of those zillion-degree why-do-I-live-in-the-Valley days.

The Sagebrush has live music four nights a week. Classic rock bands play Friday and Saturday nights and two bands play Sunday until 10 p.m. for those who care little about the continuing trials of Mulder and Scully. Ray knows what works at the Sagebrush.

Music: 'People Want

Something Familiar'

"We don't have punk rock at the Sagebrush but mostly classic rock bands. The head-bangers would probably think this place sucks, but they'd probably be at a Slayer show, anyway. We've found that people want to hear something familiar. We've tried reggae and blues over the years, but it just didn't work. We've had some great reggae bands, but reggae only works for about 45 minutes, then people get tired of it."

Dress is casual--shorts, shades, T-shirts and Harley tank tops for the guys, and likewise or sun dresses for the ladies. Several patrons hit the road to Margaritaville, a house specialty, most people chat it up, others struggle vainly with cell phones, and everybody stares. Sitting near the door can be like judging a beauty contest as numerous women orbit the aisles with predictable frequency, many sporting brand-new body parts.

"The Sagebrush is different for each person," Ray says. "It is a good place to meet people and there are a lot of beautiful women there. . . . The average age of the people that come here is between 21 and 50 years old, most of them are from 35 to 50. They're my favorite because they tip. Hey, it costs a lot to ride a Harley these days."

But there's much more to the Sagebrush than just the meat market on the party patio. On a separate patio nearest the street, it's mostly families chowing down, shaded by umbrellas emblazoned with logos for beer. This is after all, a Mexican restaurant--a huge one that seats 500. Inside is a full bar with sawdust on the floor and a bunch of TVs, where a hardy few watch soccer.

But at the Sagebrush, the excitement obviously is outside. The place may, in fact, be a Mexican restaurant, a party patio, a benign biker bar, a viable alternative to pro football and a music venue all in one.

"I think we've found the secret formula," says manager Charlie Halstead. "We've been here for 25 years and everyone knows where we are. The best thing about the place is the people atmosphere. It's not stuffy, but very laid-back. It's a great place to watch people. All the good-looking women come here and the guys come to look at them. And that's how it gets started."

BE THERE

Sagebrush Cantina, 23527 Calabasas Road, Calabasas. Free, but $5 on Sundays after 2 p.m. (818) 222-6062.

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