When Kevin Keehl was offered the opportunity to take over the property at 1644 E. Thompson Blvd. in Ventura, the previous owner didn’t exactly make the most convincing sales pitch. “Dude, I’ve got this shit box. I can’t do anything with it,” he told Keehl, his voice weary from months spent trying, in vain, to woo people off Main Street and into his bar, which sat in darkness next to a scummy motel and across from a lot that sells camper shells. A lot of other ambitious folks had previously occupied that “shit box” — known at different times over the last decade as Bubba’s Lounge, Jawz and the Zone — but none were able to overcome its location in downtown’s dead zone, an area where there is hardly any foot traffic during the day, let alone at night. Given its history, what Keehl was being presented with was not so much a challenge as a suicide mission. “Take a look at it,” the owner said, “and see if you can do anything with it.”
It had been a while since Keehl had been involved in the club world at all. A former DJ and party promoter originally from Thousand Oaks, Keehl left the business to focus on his career as a Hollywood stuntman. But with injuries keeping him from practicing his craft, he didn’t have much else going on. And ever since moving to Ventura, Keehl found the city’s nightlife to be lacking a certain quality. With an open space to work with, he could create the kind of place he had grown accustomed to while working in Los Angeles. One with an upscale ambiance, high-quality liquor and a booming sound system. Valet parking and dress codes. Cover charges and VIP rooms.
Keehl accepted the apparent suicide mission. He gave the “shit box” a sleek new look, with a red and black color motif, an upgraded bar and patio, sparkling bathrooms and an improved DJ booth with state-of-the-art equipment. He hired bartenders with experience pouring drinks at 1,000-capacity clubs in New York. He brought in go-go dancers, techno DJs from Las Vegas and, the coup de grace, a mobile stripper pole. And he gave it a name to match the extravagant atmosphere: Pangaea Lounge & Nightclub.
For longtime residents, the appearance of a self-professed “ultra lounge” actively aiming for an L.A. vibe was yet another assault on Ventura’s small town, mom-and-pop, antique store lifestyle. Other than Table 13, the restaurant and cocktail bar on Santa Clara Street now called Hush, no other club in the city had ever dared to present itself as “chic,” “hip” or “sophisticated” — elitist labels people come here to avoid. Nicholby’s and Bombay Bar & Grill, for more than 10 years the dominant nightspots in Ventura, were about as close as local clubs come to “upscale,” and even then no one could confuse them with Melrose. Every place else was a dyed-in-the-wood, stained-in-the-carpet “dive bar,” a tag most wore with pride. Pangaea was an utter anomaly. Almost immediately, Keehl began feeling heat from detractors — “haters,” as they’re commonly referred to. He alleges certain bars threatened to blacklist any DJ who spun there. He even received a few nasty voicemails.
“When we first opened,” Keehl says, “we had someone call and leave a message on the answering machine that’s like, ‘What the fuck? You think you’re in Hollywood? You’re not going to last three months.’ ”
That was two years ago. Now, as its second anniversary approaches, Pangaea has evolved into one of Ventura’s most popular weekend destinations, often filling to capacity on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. As strange as it seemed in the beginning, Venturans have proved willing to put on their finest clothes and pay $10 at the door to hang out on plush red couches and listen to electronic music. And according to Keehl, “a lot of clubs in town, if not all of them, have copied stuff that I’ve done.”
Regardless of whether that is true, the success of Pangaea and Hush goes against the preconceived notion of what Ventura is. It could be that there has always been a demographic here that, like Keehl, enjoys “the higher-end stuff” but had to travel an hour south or 30 minutes north to find it. Or maybe the county’s booming cost of living and the arrival of numerous trendy restaurants and wine bars has brought to town a new breed of clubgoer. It’s probably a bit of both.
Still, despite the protestations of some, Ventura is not yet Santa Barbara or L.A. Which means you can put a Hollywood-style nightclub here, but your clientele is still going to be Ventura people.
“It’s definitely not in their nature to go to a place as gaudy looking as us or Pangaea,” says Tim Rhodes, general manager at Hush. “They don’t care about the design or fanciness or whatever. That might be a tourist attraction for people who come in during the summer, but it’s not inherent in the culture of Ventura to say, ‘I’d rather go to some place that’s really impressive.’ They want to go to some place where somebody knows who they are and is going to hang out with them and converse with them and treat them like they deserve to be treated. That’s why people are inclined to go to those dive bars. That’s why we still have some great bars in town that call themselves dive bars. That’s the culture. People are coming in because they know that person behind the bar. So the way you have to approach doing a place like Hush is you have to train your staff to adopt those same core values you would have if you were running a little bar down the street where you serve to all regulars.”
Like Keehl, Rhodes previously lived in Thousand Oaks, and for a long time the idea of venturing down the Conejo Grade rarely crossed he and his friends’ minds. “We never even thought of going to downtown Ventura,” he says. “There was just nothing.” Not that he had much free time, anyway. As bar manager at Chapter 8, Agoura Hills’ own posh nightclub, Rhodes’ evenings were almost always occupied. When he did visit Ventura, he would frequent Table 13, regarded by Rhodes and Keehl as the precursor to their respective establishments. In the case of Hush, it literally was the precursor. In 2006, the owners sold the building to Jared Williams. By that point, Rhodes had quit restaurant management to concentrate on finishing law school and being a freelance wine geek for the likes of Westside Cellar. On the recommendation of a mutual friend, Rhodes met Williams and, excited by his vision, agreed “in about 15 seconds” to a position as general manager.
Hush is described on its Web site as a “luxurious retro modern lounge,” “a meta club … indulging partygoers with its posh, sexy interior” — flowery language for what was once the site of an Italian restaurant called Pastabilities. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, Venetian mirrors cling to the walls and the décor includes images of spores softly falling off a dandelion. The bar serves premium wells, meaning even the cheapest drinks are mixed with name-brand liquors. Rhodes speaks with special pride about the club’s bottle service. An emerging trend in cities like New York and Las Vegas, bottle service used to refer to bottles of wine, which are brought to a private table, opened and served in an ordered manner. Now, the process is extended to expensive vodkas and gins as well. “The only difference is, it’s a cocktail server instead of a sommelier, with a short skirt and high boots to her knees, and she’s presenting a bottle of vodka or some sort of hard alcohol instead of a fine wine,” Rhodes explains. “In that, there’s still an etiquette to it, there’s still a serving sequence, and people are paying top dollar.”
Rhodes acknowledges that this all sounds a bit decadent for a place like Ventura. But he says the personal interaction between staff and customer is where Hush breaks away from its big city counterparts.
“There’s some substance in talking about doing this in an area where it’s kind of unique. Seemingly, it’s a great idea to do something that is the equivalent of a Los Angeles hot nightclub or a Miami Beach nightclub and stick it in the middle of an area that needs this kind of thing and there’s a demand for it. But you have to be really careful when you do it, too. All of a sudden, when you do something different like that, it carries some sort of pretentiousness to it.
“There’s a mentality that people have, especially in Ventura, that I’m learning,” Rhodes continues. “I go swim every day, I go to the beach and I go surfing like all these other guys. One thing that I think is important about building a relationship with people and the people that are going to come out and see me is to know I’m somebody who’s integrated and involved in this area. The last thing you want to do is bring in people who are from out of town, because they’re just going to rub people the wrong way. This isn’t a pretentious area. That’s the best part about it. So if you bring some of that attitude you’re going to get at those L.A. places, it’s not going to work. We offer that same experience in L.A. and Hollywood without that pretentiousness.”
Keehl agrees there is a fine line between stylishness and pomposity, and that it needs to be towed with caution. He admits business at Pangaea suffered initially because the cover was too high and the dress code too strict. Once he lowered the price of admission and relaxed the sartorial restrictions slightly, attendance began to pick up. Gradually, the cover has raised back up and the dress code has become more stringently enforced, with Keehl attempting to find a balance between what people will accept and creating the kind of comfortable environment he believes his guests want.
“You can’t be too stuck up, because it is Ventura, it is a beach community, and people are going to wear their flip-flops and shorts,” he says. “And they’re going to be good customers. Those guys in flip-flops and shorts are driving a Mercedes, and they’re going to buy a bottle.”
It remains to be seen if Pangaea and Hush will prove to be the model for future nightclubs in Ventura. From Rhodes’ perspective, they have not killed the character of city’s after dark scene — merely added something new to it. And he insists the crowd they are catering to is not all that different from those who’ve dropped quarters in jukeboxes and shot pool inside local dives for generations.
“I’m hoping we can have that kind of crossover,” he says. “I go to Sans Souci. That’s the place I would go if I had the night off, or over to Dargan’s or Rookees. These are the places we go to see the people that we know. As we build that relationship with people in town and with this culture, there will be a crossover. The people that can come to these places are the same people that can support every place in town.”
As for the haters, Keehl says they are still around — and will probably grow even more hateful once he moves to Main Street (it is only a matter of time, he claims). But he harbors no ill will.
“I have no enemies. Other clubs see us as enemies. I’m peaceful with everybody. But people in this town get really butt-hurt when you start getting a little bit of business and they’re not busy,” Keehl says. “I came into this town with zero. I had negative. I had below zero on my side, because this place was not only a shit box, it was in a bad area. If I had a brand new venue on Main Street, it would have been 10 times easier. I had to get people down here. Do you know how difficult that is? People are already set in a small town. They all know their friends go Friday to Bombay. They all know their friends go Saturday to Dargan’s. People had their cliques already. To break into that and to get cliques here, it took us two years to establish that. But we’re here.”
Off the Diving Board
Looking to spend your evenings out at a place that’s a step above a local dive and you don’t live in the city of Ventura? Here are some choice nightspots located elsewhere in the county.
La Dolce Vita Lounge
You won’t find dress codes, cover charges or valet parking at the La Dolce Vita Lounge, but you will find a relaxed, classy atmosphere unlike that of most nightspots in the county, and certainly not like any other place in downtown Oxnard. Located downstairs at a top-shelf Italian-Mediterranean restaurant in Heritage Square, the LDV — as the increasing amount of regulars call it — is ahead of the game in providing a modern evening vibe for a city on the grow. With leather couches, a fireplace and a broad selection of beer, wine and liquor, the lounge gives its patrons a taste of “the Sweet Life” while being neither exclusive nor ostentatious.
Big Nights: Club Mercy Saturdays, featuring live bands and DJs spinning everything from rock’n’roll to electro to Latin alternative; Karaoke Thursdays, hosted by local KJ icon Leigh Balton.
740 S. B St., Oxnard, 486-6878, www.theldv.com
P6 Restaurant & Lounge
Walking into P6 is sort of like walking into a postmodern Emerald City. Its décor is a shimmering potpourri of design influences, from naturalistic waterfall walls and bamboo to futuristic booths and chairs. Behind the ebony bar, 13 house cocktails and martinis are offered for consumption, and a slick private dining room is available for rent. Cosmetically, the whole place feels like it’s preparing for liftoff. If you have an appetite for the high life, this is among the best spots in the county to indulge it.
Big Nights: Sunday and Monday Wine Nights, with half off every bottle and glass of wine.
2809 Agoura Rd., Westlake Village, 778-0123
Bellavino Wine Bar
Downtown Ventura is getting to the point where it almost has more wine bars than it knows what to do with. But for East County residents, one stands above the rest: Bellavino in Westlake. Fine wines, fine foods, fine jazz mix to create a fine, elegant atmosphere for savoring the upscale.
Big Nights: Live jazz on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
3709 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Westlake Village, 557-0202