The whole world is about three drinks behind*


Historically, civilizations have celebrated to gods representing decadence and good times. Bacchus led Greek partygoers, while the Mayans celebrated the chicanery of Maximón and Egyptians had their beloved Goddess Bastet.

In a city noted for houses, yachts and cars, Newport’s galas, celebrations, parties and special-nights-out have played an important role in the city’s charm. This Dionysian lifestyle has highlighted Newport since cityhood. Endless offerings of great food alongside unique opportunities to imbibe exist. Famous old-timers like John Wayne, Dennis Rodman and multiple generations of Blackie’s By the Beach patrons have let this desire to drink be known to all. Bars and restaurants were an important part of the social fabric of our town.

Photo by Duncan Forgey

Blackie’s By the Sea

As chronicled by Judge Robert Gardner, in his classic book, Bawdy Balboa, early days in old Newport were at times rowdy.  Generations of fishermen, boat builders, blue collar workers, builders and beach seekers kept the tiny town crowded. With the coming of the Red Cars (1905) and eventually the 405 Freeway (1968), more and more people moved to the harbor area. This created more and more requests for liquor licenses. Even during the prohibition days (1920-1933), “secret” locations offered liquor to those wanting to party. The popularity of music and dancing at the Rendezvous Ballroom (1928-1966), the annual Easter celebration, leading to Bal Week (1920s-1960s), the mayhem surrounding Fourth of July and the 116-year-old Christmas Boat Parade have added millions of celebrants to town.  Most importantly, each generation of Newporters carries on these traditions.

Bars, taverns and restaurants are essential to the town’s character and economy.

Mai tais and rum barrels were specialties at Don the Beachcomber in CdM, while adios mothers reigned king at The Studio Café in Balboa. Buckets of cold beer were sold at taverns all over town. Local lore shared that Blackie’s By the Sea sold more beer than Anaheim Stadium at times. More sophisticated drinkers did business or serenaded singles at three martini meals at The Arches, The Village Inn or Reuben E. Lee. Quality scotch and bourbon were served up at Berkshire’s, Dillman’s and Five Crowns. The Stag, Village Inn, Malarky’s Irish Pub, Stuffed Shirt and Stuffed T-shirt were standby stopover spots for those wanting to “wine and dine.”  Delaney’s served up fresh fish and music alongside its cocktails.

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

The Blue Beet since 1912

All around town, short-term rentals brought hordes of young people to our beaches, resulting in keg parties, wolf-whistling gangs on the boardwalk, wet T-shirt contests and sorority-style sleepovers for inland girls. Newport teens took full advantage of these wild opportunities, many needing older siblings, parents’ liquor cabinets or friendly workers at fuel docks and liquor stores to “buy” liquor for them.

When Fashion Island opened up in 1967, it led to vast amounts of Irvine ranch lands being absorbed into Newport Beach. Construction of new neighborhoods brought more consumers, plus expanded the choice of bistros and bars.

Newporters celebrated key times each year. Cold beer, wine and party drinks were favorites on warm summer evenings while cruising the bay. Margaritas were sought out on Cinco de Mayo, while Irish pubs filled up every Saint Patrick’s Day. “Neat” and “on the rocks” were standard orders from the wealthy and socialites when they met covertly in the privacy of the Balboa Bay Club. Every bar in town became a hunting ground for companionship. Among the youth, the importance of a 21st birthday celebration ranked up there with graduations, marriages and childbirths.

Courtesy of Greg Person

Chart House menu, 1960s

Restaurant founders created an industry that set trends for dining to this day. The Ancient Mariner came from a seed started by The Chart House chain. Innovations like the baseball cut of steak, all-you-can-eat salads and bread took place in a casual setting. These two corporations and their employees took this outdoor theme all over the western United States.

The irony of this was that our earliest settlers were filled with godly “spirits” more so than the bottled kind. Among the founding fathers, alcohol consumption was not that common. Our most famous and influential founders, the McFadden brothers, were prohibitionists. As they built their shipping, lumber and wharf business, those dependent on them for employment treaded lightly.

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Courtesy of OC Archives

Water skier with the Ocean Toad restaurant in the background

Residents of big cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, Riverside and Los Angeles, found traveling to Newport gave them a place to relax, let loose and get away from it all. Our bay and beaches were the perfect vacation destination. The incorporation of the city in 1906 put the legality of drinking in open debate. Orange County was a “dry” county. Some of Newport Beach’s founders saw a future in the profits and tax revenues received from liquor. Shortly after becoming a city, the new board of trustees received a request for a liquor license from a Mr. Wilkinson and the debate officially began.

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After long discussions and several votes, the board drew up two new ordinances. One banned liquor sales, while the second allowed for two liquor licenses. Most likely a crony political vote, these two motions opened the door to booze in the beach city, allowing it to eventually become the “go to” place for libations. In 1912, the debate was put to a vote by the citizens of Newport voting 172 to 69 in favor of more liquor licenses. Approaching national prohibition in 1920, it was again placed on the ballot and this time it was rescinded by a vote of 233 to 176. Newport was officially dry. But as the locals used to say: “the horse was already out of the barn,” and as the 1920s decade moved on, so did the city’s growth.

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Courtesy of OC Archives

Character Boat Parade, 1950s

Companies in the business of selling liquor, like Orange County Wine Company, the S&W Company, The Bay View Buffet and the Balboa Wine and Liquor Company were stunned and continually lobbied for licenses to be sold. But in the meantime, alternative ways of making money and finding booze were created. Forms of bootlegging and illegal card rooms popped up around town giving those desiring a drink a place to go. The Stag Bar and Blue Beet Café are still open today, and The Green Dragon Café, a restaurant in Balboa typified this era having stayed in business by combining food, booze and in some cases a brothel. During the 14 years (January 16, 1919-December 5, 1933) of Prohibition, slick and hardy businessmen went underground to sell their wares, despite efforts of City Father Marshal Hermes. He employed detectives for the expressed purpose of “ferreting out these blind pigs” who were serving liquor.

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

A rowdy Fourth of July on Balboa Peninsula

From that era until today, libations have blessed the town with a unique kind of fun and frivolity. Kids growing up in Newport seemingly inherit a unique drive for discovery with a bit of recklessness. They too definitely live with a joy for celebration.

The next time you make reservations at your favorite restaurant, stop off at the pub for a beer and baseball game, go to a tony wine tasting at a fine hotel, relax on a boat cruise with your favorite cocktail or simply watch the sun set behind Catalina while sipping your favorite libation, remember all the challenging times, hysterical situations and powerful hangovers that have come before.

*Editor’s Note: The headline is from a Humphrey Bogart quote.


Duncan Forgey, long-time resident, photographer and historian of Newport Beach, makes his home on Kaua’i and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport. His first novel “Flyin’ Kai: A Pelican’s Tale,” which received a recommendation by Kirkus Reviews, is available through his website – He would love to hear from you.


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