As I walk into Marty’s Bar and Grill on a Sunday evening, the night air in Tustin is decidedly stale. My arrival prompts the only two men in the bar to wrap up their conversation and leave, as though their secret watering hole had been discovered by an outsider.
I order a rum and coke and wait. Five minutes goes by. Ten minutes goes by. There’s no activity. Even Cole, the lone bartender, has retreated into the back, not to be heard from.
Later I learn that tonight is the last night that Marty’s Bar and Grill will be open, at least under its current name. In early April it was announced that the local dive, known for featuring cheap drinks and karaoke six nights a week, was turning into Marty’s On Newport, a new Orange County music venue set to feature artists like punk legends X, Wu-Tang legend GZA, and up-and-coming indie artists like Timber Timbre. Cole tells me that at midnight, he will shut the bar down and the liquor license will flip, thus abruptly ushering the tavern into a new era.
Cole’s disposition seems conflicted. He explains that while locals feel a sense of loss for the local bar, the day-to-day changes are unclear, and that he and the staff are excited. All of them will be kept on to serve when Marty’s On Newport officially opens May 23rd with a performance from San Francisco synth pop act Geographer. Given that business since the announcement had been less than stellar, his excitement while talking about Marty’s future was palpable. “The potential to make money with a full room of over one hundred people is much higher than a night like tonight,” he says looking around at the empty bar.
The bar won’t look too different when it reopens at the end of May. “The changes we’re making are mostly decorative,” explains Mike Rouse, the venue’s co-owner and a veteran in the OC music scene who opened the bar with Jeff Shuman, the long time talent buyer for the Observatory. Rouse himself is the Santa Ana venue’s former GM as well as the manager for X, who plays two nights at the venue in August. “There’s a sound system and all that other stuff, but we love that horseshoe bar.”
With a capacity of around 150 people, Marty’s on Newport will be the most interesting thing to happen to Tustin nightlife in a while (maybe ever?), offering an exciting opportunity to see acts of all kinds in a low-key, intimate setting. “It’s an intimate entertainment venue that will feature touring, top quality acts that have fans that want to get that intimate experience they’re not really allowed that at the bigger box rooms,” Rouse says excitedly. “It’s how the business model has turned. It was 1000 cap rooms, then it was 500 cap rooms, and now it’s down to 200.” Though he’s moved on from Observatory, the venue is still promoting the new Marty’s calendar on their Facebook and Instagram accounts but Rouse says the club is not affiliated with Marty’s. “They have helped us promote the venue on their social media. It’s no deeper than that,” he says.
Looking around, it’s certainly not hard to imagine how Marty’s was a perfect option to become an elite music venue. “We spent two years looking for the right property,” says Rouse. “Marty’s had a physicality to it that other bars didn’t.” While its placement next to a dentist’s office and behind a gas station make it a relatively unassuming place for classic acts like Wanda Jackson or Warren G to play, the interior is open with a stage that’s seen its fair share of local bar bands and drunken karaoke appearances. “There are no sightline problems, there are front and back of house entrances, and there’s a stage door that allows the performers to have a walk on that doesn’t take away from the mystique.”
The venue’s current slate of artists is an impressive one, and while it’s unclear how everything will change once major touring rock acts begin to take over day in, day out, there seems to be a hope that the local flavor doesn’t go away, and that Marty’s doesn’t take on the bland sheen of some of those 1000 cap rooms. “I went to El Modena High School and I grew up right around the corner from Marty’s,” explains Rouse. “I come at this from being a band member, being a fan, and from being a bar promoter. But I think I come at this from a better informed place than being just a business owner.”