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Dad's Is Hot Spot After Tragedy

Business: New patrons flock to Poway bar since it gained notoriety in the murder of 7-year- old Danielle van Dam.

July 29, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POWAY, Calif. — It's Friday night at Dad's Cafe and Steakhouse, and a rock 'n' roll band called the Deadbeats is taking a break from belting out songs of the Beatles and "Poway's own" Blink 182.

Patrons wander outside the inviting establishment on the eastern edge of Poway Road to smoke and make telephone calls on the front patio.

"I'm at Dad's," Jennifer Towles, 23, who sells cosmetics and lives at the other end of the county, exclaims to an unseen friend. "Yes, that Dad's!"

That Dad's!

Until early February, Dad's was known, if at all, mostly to residents of this leafy, tidy suburb and surrounding neighborhoods, like the upscale Sabre Springs.

A family restaurant. Good place to take the wife on her birthday. A happy-hour kind of place--lots of televisions, always turned to sports channels.

Some dancing on Friday and Saturday nights for the professional and blue-collar set to rub elbows and hipbones.

Now, because of its link to the tragedy of Danielle van Dam, the 7-year-old whose disappearance and murder horrified and riveted much of the nation, Dad's is the best-known drinking and dining establishment in the region.

Business is up, even in the summer doldrums. Tourists and looky-loos are bypassing more conveniently located spots in Pacific Beach, the downtown Gaslamp Quarter and Mission Valley to make the drive north, 20 miles from downtown San Diego.

They come to see where Danielle van Dam's mother, Brenda, went dancing and drinking that Friday night before her daughter disappeared from the family's Sabre Springs home.

They look at the bar-stool once occupied by David Westerfield, now on trial for Danielle's kidnapping and murder.

And they look at the dance floor where, if you believe defense attorney Steven Feldman, Brenda van Dam and her friends cavorted like sexual whirling dervishes. In the parking lot, they can see where Brenda van Dam, two girlfriends and two male buddies sat in a truck and smoked marijuana.

"This is where it all happened," said Jim Martin, a computer technician who generally goes "clubbing" in Pacific Beach but could not resist the lure of Dad's.

Pat Lipe, Dad's co-owner and manager, is a mass of conflicting emotions about the expanding clientele brought by the notoriety.

As a father, he's sickened by the crime. As someone who knew Westerfield as a casual customer, he's perplexed at how an average-looking joe could have done what the prosecutors allege.

But as a businessman ...

"This is the best business opportunity any restaurant owner ever had, but for all the wrong reasons," Lipe said. "A little girl is dead, and I can't forget that."

Lipe, whose formative restaurant experience came as district manager for the Soup Exchange chain, bought Dad's two years ago with the idea of opening up several more Dad's in suburban locations. That idea is now on hold, for fear he would be accused of trying to capitalize on Danielle's death.

To the new customers lured to Dad's by the television coverage of the trial--which has included pictures and diagrams of Dad's, and testimony by employees and customers--Lipe tries to be accommodating. He will point out the stool where Westerfield sat, but he has a disclaimer too.

"This is not a pickup bar or a place for swingers," Lipe protested above the chatter. "This is a family restaurant where, on Friday and Saturday nights, we have music and dancing."

Dad's new notoriety has also had a downside. Parents of a local Little League team canceled plans to use Dad's for a team outing. A local company decided against Dad's for its happy-hour gathering. Lipe hired a security guard to patrol the parking lot. Some Dad's regulars grumble that they no longer feel comfortable in the crush of newcomers.

Festive and comfy perhaps, but it would be a stretch to call Dad's trendy or hip. Places with walls covered with album covers from the Doors and Jefferson Airplane do not qualify as trendy or hip.

Dad's makes its money from family diners who sit in the red-plastic wraparound booths and enjoy the ribs, fish and chips and pitchers of domestic beer.

For after-dining pleasure, there are two pinball machines, a Foosball game, and a pool table (where Brenda van Dam, et al, played pool while Westerfield watched from across the room). On this night, an attractive woman is playing pool, watched by six men.

This is an affluent area, and the Dad's parking lot is stocked with Pathfinders, Suburbans, Yukons, Jeeps, a red Corvette, two BMWs and a canary-yellow 1931 Model A with a '56 Chrysler engine.

"This is Dad's--no place quite like it," said Andrew Moe, who identified himself as a consultant who specializes in nonlinear mathematics.

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