StillWater Spirits & Sounds: Great Music and Friendly Faces
(Aliases are used throughout this article)
I don’t go to bars very often, and have only been to a couple since graduating from college. When I do go to bars, I’m used to swarms of people in their early 20s on the verge of either fighting or making out. I’m used to people crowding at the bar to get a $7 cup of Bud Light. I’m used to dirty floors, dirty bathrooms and even dirtier personalities.
Thankfully, StillWater provides none of that. When I first stepped through the door, the clean and spacious environment was a pleasant surprise, and the historical feel of the place – the second oldest building in Dana Point – fueled my curiosity. The walls are adorned with pictures from the prohibition era, depicting scenes from the building and surrounding area. While it wasn’t StillWater back then, its legacy is maintained in the current state. It provides a warm and welcoming energy that you can feel the second you come through the door. My interactions with the patrons and staff showed me where that energy was coming from.
A classic red curtain covers the stage where the band playing that night, Southern California-based Nitro Express, did their sound check. While they prepared, I sat down at a table in the corner to get a good view of everything around me, and the first thing I noticed was a motley sea of cowboy hats, covering the heads of nearly half the patrons. While I first thought this was just a new trend I’d missed the memo about, I soon realized that I’d come during country night. As I had this epiphany, I noticed a man wearing a decorated black cowboy hat and Harley Davidson vest. A near-magnetic pull brought me to his table and prompted me to introduce myself. As we talked, it became clear he was a perfect representative of the establishment.
John has been coming to the bar every week for decades, even before it became StillWater. He started coming when it was called the Dana Point Café, where he performed with a bluegrass band. He took a hiatus when it became the Renaissance, since they avoided playing country, but started coming back again when the era of StillWater began. He’s even been sitting in the same spot ever since.
As we talked, he said hello to almost every single person that passed by, and was on a first name basis with all of them. He pointed out one person on the dance floor named Dan, who he met at the bar and has known for 40 years.
“We were both married when we met here. We fixed that …” he says. He also tells me he dated Dan’s ex wife for a bit, which apparently didn’t cause any problems. Good for them.
His deep history and familiarity with the place and the people around him, as remarkable as it seemed, wasn’t even out of the ordinary. In fact, as John noted, close to a majority of the patrons are regulars. Every one of them I saw made conversation with each other, exchanging stories and planning future meet-ups. No one kept to themselves to drink alone, no one was trying to start a fight, and nearly everyone had a smile on their face.
All the warmth and comradery kick-started my appetite, so I took a peek at the menu. They offer a wide selection of food and drinks, including an array of sandwiches, salads, pizzas, entrées and 54 beers on tap. A man I’d been sitting next to recommended a stellar chicken tortilla soup, “I’ve never had a bad meal here,” he said, “They make their pizzas fresh in an oven out back. They only started doing it recently … they’re excellent.”
As I was eating, the big red curtain opened up and Nitro Express was ready to rock. With infectious charisma, the band jolted StillWater’s patrons onto their feet and kept them there through the night. They played a range of country classics done in their own style, and after watching from the sidelines I wanted to get in on the fun.
As I began to dance and stick out like the sorest of thumbs, a lovely lady named Diana invited me to learn the two-step. I took her up on her offer and she took me by the hand. I would say that I learned the two-step, but that would be a gross exaggeration. More accurately, I was taught the two-step as I stumbled all over myself and tried to avoid face planting into the floor. In conclusion, Diana is an angel and deserves free drinks for life.
The next day, I came back to the bar and sat down with two of the managers, Kristy and Randy, to learn more about the place that offered me that fantastic experience. As it turns out, they came to work for StillWater for the same reason I came to love it. The energy of the place, brought about by the relaxed and friendly customers, was enough to get Kristy to join the team. Randy, who had worked in more corporate environments before, was brought in by Kristy and fell in love with the crowd and environment as well. Exciting events, like their annual Halloween party and occasional surprise wedding proposals, keep things interesting for them too.
If you’ve been looking for a place to let your hair down with a welcoming community, I can’t recommend this place enough. People become regulars for a reason. Whether you’re wanting for new friends, good food or an excellent soundtrack for your night, StillWater is your new home.
Outside of their Wednesday country nights, you can catch tribute bands for acts like U2 and Tom Petty on Thursdays, or a wide range of ’80s and ’90s funk or rock bands Friday through Saturday. If you’re looking to drop by on a Sunday, you’ll be treated to a show from any of the aforementioned genres.
No matter what gets you grooving, though, StillWater provides a must-have experience in Orange County, and all I can say is that you have to try it out for yourself.