Karman Bar Is the Ideal Neighborhood Bar You Can’t Walk To

The moment Mark Shelton walked in, he noticed a new face and headed straight over. “Are you going to sign up? You should. It’s a supportive, warm room,” the MC said. Then he volunteered to sit on the stage if it’d make me less nervous. When I told him I might do spoken word, he zipped off to get owner Erinn Karman, who loves spoken word.

Karman Bar’s Sunday open mic rolls like this: Sometime in the third hour, an intense guy with an entourage was playing his first song, attacking his guitar and lyrics while accompanied by a percussionist on djembe, when he broke a string. By the time the song ended, another guitar, belonging to someone named Casey, had been crowd-surfed to the stage. It was even in tune.

Shelton has a quick-witted banter going all night with sound man and longtime friend James Gray, who is also in charge of security. “In two-and-a-half years, there’s never been a fight, and I never had to throw anyone out,” says the new dad. He calls Karman Bar “a big-square-footage dive bar.” If only anyone could walk there—other than residents of Cavora, a luxury condo-village that hunkers over the 5 freeway.

“Our location means no douchebags wandering in,” says the raven-haired owner, who after college ran six clubs, two of them in Oceanside, back when it was still a beach town dangerous with meth dealers “I had to hire beefy security. Now, it’s filling up with those,” she says, pointing toward Cavora.

The previous owners allowed the reality show Bar Rescue to revamp the place, then promptly decided to sell it. Karman redid the redo, upgrading the sound equipment, felting the pool tables in red, and making her ideal rock & roll club.

“I hire smart, intuitive women to work the bar,” she says.

Shelby wouldn’t let me pay for my club soda because if you take the mic, you get a free drink. After my third refill of club soda, I figured I’d belch my way through. Shelby said anywhere from seven to 20 people show up each week to sing, play, rap or just rant. We silently agree there’s plenty to rant about.

Open mic is Karman’s favorite night. There’s a fluid energy from one performer to another, she says. She grew up in Los Angeles in a family of artists; when she tells me she’s a musician, I stupidly ask if she ever plays on Sunday nights. “My name’s on the door! If I was going to do an open mic, I’d go to another one.”

Shelton offers me yet another refill, then goes onstage to tell a sex-predator joke with the prez as its butt. I visit the “gals” bathroom, which is shockingly clean; even the stickers on the seat-cover dispenser are black-and-white like the tile. Was this Bar Rescue or Karman’s doing?

And then it dawns on me: This place is douchebag-free not just because of its odd location, but also because of Karman herself. The men who work there respect her; the women are as fierce and fun.

Because of imminent nuclear annihilation or democracy’s end, I go onstage. Afterward, on his way out for a smoke, a guy who had been playing pool gives me props and Shelby a high-five. Open-mic regular Ali Swan, whose originals and covers are fresh, tells me all about a spoken-word workshop she once took.

I’m definitely going back next Sunday.

The Karman Bar, 26022 Cape Dr., Laguna Niguel, (949) 582-5909; www.thekarmanbar.com.

Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly and writes about the arts and South County beaches. Her OC roots go back to the Cuckoo’s Nest but she left to create original theater on four continents, then returned to bodysurf small waves.

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