Long before Zoey’s current reign as the acoustic music Mecca of the county, there was a venue so important to the scene that the very thought of it not existing was unimaginable. It was Café Voltaire, a name now said in some circles with such misty-eyed reverence, you’d think it was a religious shrine. From 1994 to 2000, Café Voltaire, nestled in the Livery off of Main and Palm streets in downtown Ventura, was #the# place to be for local musicians and music lovers. The story of the venue’s rise, fall and now spiritual rebirth all lies with its owner and operator, Todd Winokur.

Long story short, Winokur, a lifelong restaurant man, ended up buying Café Voltaire in 1994 when it was a fledgling coffeehouse that focused on poetry. Winokur promptly spruced up the menu, designed a warm and inviting interior with an inviting courtyard, and almost instantly a thriving music scene followed.

For those who weren’t there to experience it, it’s almost impossible to describe how popular the venue was.  Live music would occur every single night of the week, and rock and roll hall-of-famers David Crosby, Graham Nash, Chris Hillman and Spencer Davis were known to show up for impromptu jam sessions. The weekly open mic night would be jampacked with locals trying to score a coveted full set at the venue, and it was routinely voted the best place for live music, coffee and conversation in the county. Suffice it to say it, was Shangri-La for the artistically inclined.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, in 2000, the property owners decided to sell the Livery where Voltaire was located, leaving Winokur with fewer than two months to vacate the premises. Not to be deterred, he attempted for a brief time to move Voltaire to a location on the corner of Ash and Main streets, but neighbors flew into hysterics and fought Winokur tooth and nail on noise ordinances to the point where the police were being called over unamplified solo singer songwriters — a sad situation well-documented at the time in the VC Reporter. 

It was then that Winokur, growing desperate to keep the business and scene that he had given his heart and soul to for seven years, made a risky decision. Along with a partner or two, he bought the Ban-Dar, the legendary country bar located near the Pacific View Mall. The Ban-Dar in its heyday saw country’s biggest acts, such as Merle Haggard, on its stage; but in 2000, the world-famous nightclub, on its last legs, was reduced to square dance lessons. Despite renovations and a few big acts, the magic was gone. While Voltaire was an all-ages, family-friendly venue, the Ban-Dar was forced to remain a bar. The “come one, come all” charm and good vibes didn’t cross over to the dark, low ceilinged, decades-old, beer-soaked-into-the floors Ban-Dar, and the once loyal Voltaire crowd was nowhere to be found at the Ban-Dar. Winokur was forced to throw in the towel just a year later. With Voltaire officially gone (the Ban-Dar was eventually demolished), Winokur was left in financial trouble and with three young children to feed. He headed to Los Angeles where he managed a popular deli while the local acoustic music scene became dust in the wind.

“I’m not bitter,” insists Winokur. “Of course, I would have liked to see it work at the Ban-Dar. Voltaire was a special place for a lot of people for a long time. I see what my mistake was, though. Voltaire had such a family-friendly atmosphere that it just couldn’t cross over to an over-21 venue especially without the original location. With some more time and money, who knows? Toward the end though, it was so difficult.”

The story has a potentially happy ending, however. It’s been almost a decade since his abrupt departure from the local music scene, but Winokur, now working fulltime at an insurance brokerage and living happily with his family in Thousand Oaks, is bringing the spirit of Voltaire back with the Conejo Valley Family Music Series. Inspired by the lack of entertainment in the Thousand Oaks area, the outrageous cost of any family activity, and his yearning for the music scene he was once such an integral part of, Winokur is testing the waters again with what he hopes will become a quarterly event. He’s keeping the ticket price extraordinarily low, $5 for individuals, $10 for a family of any size. He also has several children’s activities planned and best of all, he’s assembled some old-school Voltaire regulars like Dogwood Moon and Jonathan McEuen to perform.

“It’s definitely got the feel of a Voltaire reunion,” he says. “This is a family event. That’s important to me. I wanted something you can bring the kids to and everyone has a good time. We’ve got drum circles, rock painting, even some music education happening. I think this side of the county especially needs an event like this.”

So while Winokur is gearing up to enter the music world again, the question has to be asked: Would he ever bring Voltaire back?

 “I’d love to do Voltaire again, but the timing and location would have to be right. That’s what made it work in the first place. For now, though, I’m just looking to bring that Voltaire vibe back with this series. It feels good to be doing it again.”                

The Conejo Valley Family Music Series takes place Sunday, Aug. 23, from 2 to 7 p.m. at the Goebel Senior Center in Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 367-6212 or visit www.conejovalleyfamilymusicseries.com.

chris@armyoffreshmen.com