Memphis' soul was always there

Funky, modernist-looking restaurant in Costa Mesa is the first in the group that now includes Detroit Bar and the Tin Lizzie Saloon.

March 22, 2011|By Joanna Clay,
  • Dan Bradley in Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar, a music venue he opened after Memphis Cafe.
Dan Bradley in Costa Mesa's Detroit Bar, a music… (DON LEACH, unknown )

COSTA MESA — To Costa Mesa native Dan Bradley, it wasn't a question of if he would open Memphis Café, but when.

A UCLA graduate and former club promoter, Bradley, 44, knew he wanted to open the restaurant in his hometown.

A marketing executive at Le Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach — now the Fairmont — Bradley exchanged the suit and tie for a chance to work at a favorite eatery: the Renaissance Café.

Bradley felt he could learn from the popular café. Now closed, it had locations in Brea, Laguna Beach and Dana Point. While there, he met Diego Velasco and Andy Christenson, his future business partners.

"It wasn't until I met them that I was like, 'I really have to have these guys,'" Bradley said. "It couldn't have been anyone. It had to be them."

During late nights of shooting pool, they hatched plans about their future businesses.


"Before I met him, he had the idea of Memphis. It was his brainchild," Velasco said. "At one time, it was a coffeehouse/billiards place. After Renaissance, it started to develop into a Euro-style café."

In 1994, Velasco was studying at the California Culinary Academy when he got the news that they found the spot for Memphis Café. It was an indiscriminate building from the '50s with a stone façade at Bristol Street and Randolph Avenue in Costa Mesa.

While in his San Francisco dorm room, the then-22-year-old made his first menu as head chef using the retro exterior as inspiration for the mixture of traditional American, Creole and Southwestern cuisine.

The mid-century modernist look that Memphis is known for plays a big part in its brand because, to Bradley, that's the design that makes the Tennessee city iconic.

"When I think of the furniture and the modernism, I think of Memphis," Bradley said.

Bradley hoped Memphis, which opened in August 1995, would get people to see that there was more to Orange County than meets the eye.

"Back then in Orange County, in 1995, people wanted to kind of escape, it seemed," he said. "There wasn't really a cultural hotbed at the time. I loved it here."

He hoped the funky soul food restaurant would temporarily transport people and make them ignore their expectations about the area.

"We always got that comment when we first opened, 'Wow! This doesn't seem like a place you'd find in Orange County,'" he said.

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