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| SETTINGS Stops on a Tasting Tour of Orange County:
The Blue Beet Cafe, 107 21st St., Newport Beach. (949)

Traveling to a Different Beet

Ambience is more like Northern California, but food and designer drinks keep people coming from all over.


I don't know why, but the Blue Beet feels like it belongs in San Francisco. Around SoMa--South of Market. Maybe it's the old brick walls or the cherrywood bar or Stacy, a bartender, who grooves to '70s music. Maybe it's the baseball steaks or the designer martinis or Edmund Velasco, a tenor saxophonist, blowing hot jazz Sundays. I don't know.

But it doesn't feel like Newport to me. Despite the dudes sporting tattoos on their necks and silver loops in their earlobes. Despite the young hotties snapping gum and talking to their girlfriends on cell phones while standing in line waiting to get in on a Saturday night when the joint is jumpin'.

See, if this place were in San Francisco, it might start off as an underground cabaret for the hip set, but then the suits would start dropping in after work, slurping up a Dean Martin martini (orange Stoli, Triple Sec and amaretto) or a Prozac made with a wicked combination of gins and fruit juices and blended white, and pretty soon the Ally McBeal crowd and the Felicity wannabes would be mixing it up like something out of "West Side Story." Or a Gap commercial.

But the difference is that while the suits of San Francisco love to go slumming in the Mission District or venture into the tenderloin bowls South of Market, there is an unspoken Mason-Dixon line in Newport Beach that keeps the lawyers on one side of the bay and the tattoo crowd on the other. It's called Pacific Coast Highway. Massed around the turning basin and what chamber enthusiasts call Mariners Mile are the privileged haunts of the Arches and Bistro 201 and Villa Nova. But cross the bridge and huddled around dank McFadden Square like snot-nosed children from Les Miserables are Blackie's and Cassidy's and the most famous--or infamous--dive of all, the Blue Beet.

So that's where I take B. Hardy, a venture capitalist from London, a man who owns a small island in Denmark, a Duke grad who is also my best friend. B. Hardy likes to mix it up. When I'm in London, he'll host me to a three-hour lunch at the Ivy in Covent Garden, and then we'll spend the evening crawling around the Black Friar or Pheasant and Firkin downing warm Dogbolters or a nasty Rail Ale, so named because it's so potent you need to keep hold of the bar rail while drinking.

But B. Hardy is always late and tonight is no exception. He calls me from somewhere up in L.A. to tell me he's not going to get down to Newport until 9 or so that evening. I tell him to meet me at the Blue Beet, where I have dinner alone. My waitress is Frankie. How can you not like a place where Frank Sinatra is singing "I've got the world on a string," where the bartender is tossing up high-octane concoctions in a cocktail shaker, and your waitress is named Frankie?

The menu is straightforward. You've got your steaks--rib eye, New York, filet mignon, sirloin--and you've got your fish--halibut, swordfish, yellowtail. There are also a few oddities like beef stroganoff, but I wouldn't mess around with those. Frankie brings me a beer, asks me how I'm doin', and takes my order for the halibut. But when it arrives, it's not what I had in mind. It's a big thick halibut steak with some sort of caper sauce, but I thought I was getting the encrusted halibut. Never mind, I tell Frankie. This is fine.

"You sure?" she asks. "I can take it back."

"Naw, it looks great."

She raises an eyebrow and grabs the plate from in front of me. "You owe me," she says jokingly as she carries it back to Jorge, who runs the kitchen. The encrusted halibut is great, the handcrafted ales a treat, and Frankie has just enough time in between tables to come over and razz me about this and that.

"You alone tonight?" she asks.

I tell her a buddy of mine is joining me later. "Oh, right," she says sarcastically. "Boys night out, huh."

By the time B. Hardy arrives, near 10, the live music is crankin' and there's a short line outside the door. I take Frankie with me to approach the bouncer. "Let this guy's pal in, will ya," Frankie says, and the bouncer motions with his head for B. Hardy to sneak inside.

A large blond wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and a black mini-dress objects. "Hey wait a minute," she drawls. "I came all the way from Texas and you're letting this guy in ahead of me. That's not fair."

"Sorry, Peaches," the bouncer says.

All the tables in the room where I had dinner have been removed and still it's so crowded that just getting near the bar to order a drink takes some major maneuvering. B. Hardy is able to purchase us a spot next to a group of blondies by offering to buy them all a drink. "Where you from?" asks the tallest of the group.

"England," B. Hardy says.

The girls all nod in appreciation. As if he's just said he'd like to buy them a bottle of champagne. As if he's told them any minute now he's going to hand out $20 bills.

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