“The first time I came in here I thought, ‘It’s like a time machine,’” says Demetrius Antuña as he sits in a U-shaped corner booth at Albie’s Beef Inn. Tacked onto the front of a San Diego Travelodge, Albie’s is a retro piano bar that feels like it was dipped in amber the day it opened in 1962. Not much has changed since the early years: not the gold-vein mirrors, not the twice-baked potato and sugared carrots that come with the massive slabs of prime rib. Even Mary, the waitress, has been here for more than two decades.
Albie’s is going off on a recent Tuesday night: the tufted-leather banquettes are filled with couples sipping champagne cocktails, and a handful of old-timers slow-dance in front of a jazz trio that’s set up in the far corner. Oh, if these wood-paneled walls could talk. They’d probably tell you about the night a hostess broke a lamp while dancing on top of the piano, or the time Ben the Regular accidentally parked his sedan at the bottom of the Travelodge pool. Or they might whisper the story of how owner Ted Samouris met his future wife Sofia, whose dad was the night bartender at Albie’s for almost thirty years.
But there’s a low note of melancholy playing underneath this festive scene. That’s because Albie’s — a dimly lit joint whose walls are lined with oil paintings of 1970s-era airline stewardesses reclining in the nude — will soon be closing its doors after 57 years in business. Facing an impossible rent hike, on December 23 Albie’s Beef Inn will go the way of countless other nostalgic drinking establishments in cities across the country and the world. Its closure sparked open mourning in San Diego and invites us to reflect on what a city’s drinking culture loses when bars like these close. Are time-worn watering holes worth saving, or is this just the natural cycle of life in an evolving city in capitalist America?
Antuña, for one, thought Albie’s was worth trying to preserve. When he first heard it would be closing, the 40-something graphic designer and musician started an online petition to plead with the new owners to find a way to keep the bar in place.
“Everything I love about the city gets taken away, modernized, changed,” he laments between bites of steak.
Tonight he and his wife are sharing their booth with the Samourises: Ted, Albie’s second-generation owner whose mischievous eyes and quick wit make him a natural fit for the bar business, and his elegant, ebullient wife, Sofia. The couples seem like old friends, but they only met recently, when Antuña’s petition went unexpectedly viral, drawing nearly three thousand signatures in just a few weeks.
“When I read the comments, I realized people are really going to miss this place,” Antuña says. “People live here!”
One of those people is Ron La Scala, a plumbing contractor who’s nursing a whiskey-and-water at the far end of the leather-padded bar. Ron’s been coming to Albie’s three times a week since 1985. He says he wasn’t surprised to hear the bad news.
“I know things happen,” he says. “But San Diego needs a little nostalgia. You can’t get rid of it all.”
“The old guard is going away,” Ted acknowledges. “It’s sad, but progress means change and change means out with the old and in with the new. Money drives everything, and I understand that.”
“Money should respect history too, though,” Antuña adds.
The petition failed to convince Albie’s new landlords to renegotiate the lease, whose terms would only be tenable for “a publicly traded company, a national chain or a trust-fund kid,” Ted says. (Ironically, the Travelodge’s new owners told KPBS that they plan to remodel in a style “reminiscent of ‘the 1960s and the Rat Pack.’”)
Still, Antuña considers the petition successful, because the outpouring of support inspired the Samourises to think about reopening the bar in a new location. Ted says business has doubled since the news broke.
“Everybody wants to come to the funeral,” he says, adding that people are drawn to Albie’s for its classic, trend-resistant style. “We just want to pour a good, honest drink. We’re not gonna get crazy with fads; we don’t have a cocktail list. We make an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Rob Roy.”
From suspender-wearing barkeeps to pre-Prohibition recipes, modern bar culture loves anything that seems old-timey. But Albie’s proves there’s no substitute for real history.
As the band packs up at the end of the night, Sofia Samouris looks around the restaurant she’s been coming to since she was six years old — the place her 23-year-old son hoped to run one day — and insists she’s not emotional about the closure. Her eyes scan the room, resting on the booth where she used to sit eating London Broil and watching her dad pour drinks, way back in 1967. In the rear dining room, the marlin she caught on her honeymoon with Ted is mounted proudly above the gas fireplace.
Sofia suspects reality will hit her at the very end. “When he and I walk out of here for the last time…” Tears pool in her brown eyes. She looks at Ted and her voice trails off.
“I don’t know what the solution is,” wrote Esquire’s David Wondrich in a 2013 article titled “The Dives Are Dying.” “Cherish your dives, obviously. Go there, spend money, make sure they stay in business. But leases run out and landlords run to the greedy and heedless of history.”
Maybe the best we can do, he suggests, is spend enough time in shiny new bars to make them quickly feel like lived-in old ones. Hang out. Make friends. Meet a future spouse. Dance so hard you break a lamp. Then maybe, just maybe, today’s Edison-bulb’d temple of mixology could become tomorrow’s Albie’s Beef Inn.