MAIN STREET — The music was loud, the drinks were cheap, and there was never a cover.
From the 1960s through the early ‘90s, the Oar House Bar & Buffalo Chips Restaurant was the place to go on Main Street for a night of debauchery and all around good times. While the old haunt has long since gone and been replaced by O’Brien’s Irish Pub & Restaurant and Main on Main, the memories — or those that survived the good times — remain.
“The crazy music that we played … hearing a song just takes you right back,” Brent Steiner, a former employee and regular at the Oar House, said. “We all just loved the feel of the place.”
That is why this Saturday, Nov. 14, those who remember the Oar House or who have just heard about it are invited to O’Brien’s for a reunion of sorts. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will give people a chance to reconnect and swap stories.
“I was curious to know who would actually show up and how much fun it would be,” Steiner said of organizing the reunion.
For employees and regulars alike, the Oar House was a permanent fixture in their young adult lives. Most of the 20-somethings were college educated and learned about “the Oar” through friends or word of mouth.
“I found that I could make more money at that college beach bar in 15 hours … than I made teaching,” said Patricia Merryman, a former Oar House waitress and bartender. Merryman heard about the bar in 1969, mere hours after she had moved out to California from Ohio.
“There was something almost magical about that time and that place,” Merryman said.
The bar opened in 1964 as the brainchild of a group of Western Airlines pilots. The restaurant served good, cheap food starting at 11:30 a.m., while the Oar House opened at 5 p.m. Every evening, the bar’s sound system blasted the same opening soundtrack, which lead the way to sawdust floors, free peanuts and an eclectic blend of beats.
It would be the Beatles followed by the USC fight song followed by a one-liner from a comedy show, Clark Merritt, who worked as a manager in the early ‘70s, said.
The Oar House was the first bar in Al Ehringer’s Grand American Fare chain. Ehringer was one of the Oar’s founding pilots and expanded GAF both up and down California and across the state. Former employees credit Ehringer not only with the Oar’s innovative musical philosophy, but also its unparalleled decorations. The walls were covered in just about anything, from old license plates to a wagon to the work of local artists. The mishmash of decor reflected the patrons from all walks of life.
“If you were an avid people-watcher like I was you would see one of just about every kind of person in the universe,” Ed Wedemeyer, a one-time regular at the Oar House, said. “You would see people roll up in limousines … and bums — you’d see everything!”
Aside from the atmosphere, people were attracted by some of the cheapest drinks in town. The Oar House only served quality liquor, such as Jack Daniels and Chivas Regal, but charged far less than a dollar. Yet, what the bar may have lost on each drink, it made up for in volume, with crowds coming in night after night. It’s no wonder that at one point the Oar House had the largest Budweiser draft account in the nation, former employees said.
“This place was packed when you walked in the door,” Patrick “The Rookie” Flannery, a former Oar House chef and bartender, said. “You know that you walked into some real history.”
There are certain moments in the bar’s history that stand out to the old Oar crew. On St. Patrick’s Day, the Oar would open at 6 a.m. and the first people would get breakfast for free. Every so often, there would be a going-out-of-business sale, where all drinks sold for 25 cents. And in 1974, after a fire bomb nearly destroyed the building, employees and patrons alike banded together to rebuild the Oar in just six weeks.
“I’ve never found the loyalty of friendship from the group of people that I met in that restaurant,” Merryman said.
As the years progressed, employees and regulars moved on. Careers and marriages took people away from Southern California or at the very least the Oar House’s doors. Some kept in touch, while others disappeared all together.
Two and half years ago, Merritt decided that he wouldn’t let the Oar’s history fade away altogether. He created a Web site, complete with a timeline, memory pages, blog and answers to the question of “where are they now?” Pretty soon, people began to reconnect, so much so that Steiner, Merritt and Flannery organized a reunion in Reno. With almost 30 former Oar House loyalists in attendance, the group had a blast and decided to return to the old spot.
When a few of them visited Santa Monica, Steiner learned from O’Brien’s manager Nicole Barnes that the Oar was all but forgotten.
“[People ask about the Oar] about once a week,” Barnes said. “They come in and want to see the room or just want to talk … . People that visited Santa Monica or lived here have very, very found memories of it.”
While Barnes hopes at some point to throw a big commemorative party, Saturday will be an opportunity for anyone who has ever heard of the Oar House to convene and learn about the legend. With drinks, food and photos to accompany what are sure to be vivid and entertaining stories, the spirit of the Oar House will return to Santa Monica.
“They should put up some kind of historical marker out front of the place and make it into a national shrine,” Wedemeyer said. “It really was unique in the world.”
For more information about the event, visit www.oarhousebuffalochips.com.