The Marine Room, a 78-year-old tavern at 214 Ocean Ave. opened in 1934 by Walter Elterman Sr., has been under the nearly daily care of Kelly Boyd, Laguna native and current council member, for the last 25-plus years. “Everybody knows that’s my office, Kelly’s seat, that first stool of the second bar,” Boyd said, pointing to a worn-shiny green leather barstool. “I’ve kept my eye on the pulse of things.”
Boyd and his now-deceased brother, Bo, leased the bar in 1987. The first thing they did was to remove the black tint off the front windows and let the sun shine in.
“It was a dive, it really was,” said Boyd during an interview Tuesday at the Mar Bar, as it’s locally known. Boyd said the bar was busy by 8 a.m. with construction workers grabbing a drink before hitting the hard-labor grind. After eight months, younger brother Randy helped remodeled the place into what it still looks like today.
Boyd, now 68 and just recuperating from a health crisis that’s put him in pulmonary and respiratory therapy three hours a day, three days a week, said he’s ready to let it go. “I’m tired,” he said.
Chris Keller, owner of Hotel La Casa del Camino and its K’ya Bistro and Rooftop Restaurant as well as House of Big Fish and Ice Cold Beer, will assume proprietorship next week. He’ll launch his new holding with a look-back for Boyd: two open-to-the-public retirement parties at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 27, and Wednesday, Nov. 28. Assuring the establishment’s regulars, Keller says he has no plans to gentrify the downtown landmark.
Boyd said he’s relinquishing the lease because he found the new terms unwieldy. “The lease was up and I couldn’t negotiate what I thought would have been a fair lease,” he said. The landlord, he explained, wanted more money per square foot than he was willing to pay.
“The first 15 years of this bar,” Boyd recalled, “I was busting my butt, bartending, busing, remodeling, and it got busier from ’90 on, since we remodeled and people knew we had it and we brought in the live music. People started responding to it.”
Even though the famous twin cartoonists Phil and Frank Interlandi used the Marine Room as their mailing address and other cartoonists such as Virgil Partch, Dick Olden and John Lara hung out there, no one event or incident stands out over the years to Boyd. Just day-to-day events fill his memory, like weddings with couples who met there, memorials for departed friends, fundraisers, vacationers who return each year and Friday happy-hour gatherings of locals catching up on town news.
“It’s those little things that are important,” Boyd said. “It’s kind of like Laguna’s answer to ‘Cheers.’ I think the live entertainment has a lot to do with it and the casual atmosphere of the bar.”
Keller promises the Mar Bar will remain true to its earthy soul, though he intends to add some sparkle of his own. He plans to brighten the walls and add modern lighting and new flooring, make the billiards room sexier and, most importantly, amp up the alcoholic offerings.
“We’re going to emphasize the tavern part of it a little more, try to keep it full when there’s no music playing,” Keller said. The way to do that, according to the restaurateur, is to kick up the ambiance, add more craft cocktails, quality draft beers, select wines and…good food.
Keller isn’t going to the expense of adding a kitchen. He will offer, however, happy-hour snacks and a menu customized to suit the bar’s scene with quality food delivered by nearby restaurants. “If people want to grab a couple of beers and a couple of small pizzas, we can do that,” he said. “We’re going to make it much easier and a little more streamlined to bring food in.” Typical fast food, he said, won’t be an option.
Keller said he plans to make the bar a place where locals want to come for cocktails before dinner and still meet afterwards to move their groove with the eclectic live bands for which the Mar Bar is well-known.
The Marine Room, like most businesses, has had to tighten up its budget when the economy and then the crowds thinned out. On Sunday afternoons, the Mar Bar used to be a regular stop for riders of sometimes a 100 hefty motorcycles that lined both sides of the street. But a crackdown on city noise ordinances and tickets generously given eventually penned the bikers out. “We chased them out of town, really,” said Boyd. “They got pissed and left. It was so miserable for those guys, they wouldn’t come back.”
Locals and nearby neighbors came in their place and The Missiles of October, for years the regular Sunday-afternoon band, still draws a capacity crowd. “A lot of these people have been coming here since the ‘80s. Do they come as much? No, but they still come in.”
The Marine Room prohibits smoking, fighting and sees far less drunkenness since fines and frequency of DUI citations have increased, particularly due to federal funding incentives for issuing citations to drunk drivers. Laguna is known, said Boyd, for writing DUIs, so savvy people are curtailing the amount they imbibe.
Running the Marine Room was not an impromptu opportunity for Boyd. It was a life-long dream realized. Hanging out at the Mar Bar for more than 25 years provided him a window into life’s diversity. “I’ve met some great people in here from all over the United States and the world,” he noted.
Under Keller’s tutelage, the Mar Bar will continue to offer its weekly serving of musical variety with Tuesday’s singer-songwriter talent showcase and live bands for listening and dancing Thursday through Sunday. And Robbie, Boyd’s nephew and Dupp Brothers’ washboarder and harmonic and banjo player, will remain the barkeep.
Keller said the changes will be seamless while the tavern by the sea remains open. “We’re going to keep all the traditions alive,” said Keller. “It’s going to be what the Marine Room is all about.”
Boyd’s playing out his last days at the bar by taking it easy, something he feels he deserves after building up a low-dive bar into a high-dive one. He’s looking forward to having plenty of free time to start golfing again and traveling with his wife, Michelle.
“All I’ve done is work here,” he said. “It’s been a fun time.”