A Place to Wind Down, Not Tank Up : Drowsy Maggie's Shuns Booze, Loves Music

Times Staff Writer

The mood at Drowsy Maggie's is as comfortable as its name. The smell of hearty vegetable soup mingles with the sprightly tune of a familiar Irish jig. Middle-aged men in berets discuss literature by candlelight, and young married couples sit close, tapping their feet in time to the music. Students take a break from studying.

The crowd is diverse, but everyone belongs. This sense of belonging, along with the cafe's policy of no alcohol or smoking, draws an audience more interested in the music and a mug of hot cider than flashy lights and liquor.

"I was pleasantly surprised," said 38-year-old painter Randy Englund upon his first visit to Maggie's. "We did not have to wait in line, and nobody is hustling you the minute you walk in. . . . The music is nice. It doesn't blow you out the back door."

An original alternative to San Diego's fern-draped bar scene, Maggie's, at University Avenue and 31st Street, is home to groups playing international folk music--a far cry from yuppie jazz or Top 40 tunes. And its clientele is as different as its music. Patrons come here on Friday nights to wind down, not tank up. A feeling of companionship drifts among the comfortable chairs and donated paintings. Faded jeans and sea-bead necklaces wander amid navy blue suits.

The secret to the the cafe's growing popularity is this ability to bridge gaps between generations and life styles.

"Prior to (discovering Maggie's), the only thing I could think of to do at night was to sit at home and watch TV, pay $6.50 for a preferred seat at a movie . . . or go to a bar, which is loud and dark and not much fun," said Jeanne O'Grady, a saleswoman for a medical supply company who brought her visiting parents to the cafe for apple pie and cheesecake. Her father, New York attorney John O'Grady, a rapped his hand lightly on the table top in time to a fiddler's lively refrain.

Maggie's owner, Marcus Robbins, said he quit college on a whim and opened the cafe in July, 1981, with $15,000 he had saved and a couple of small loans. He wanted to provide a showcase for local folk and ethnic musicians he found performing in Balboa Park.

Maggie's menu consists mostly of homemade food, including stews and baked rice. Robbins decided on the no-alcohol policy because he wanted the cafe to promote conversation and camaraderie rather than emphasize social drinking.

"Basically, I feel (drinking) is . . . a real destructive activity that gets in the way of people getting to know each other," said Robbins, a former auto mechanic who used to drink and smoke. "The response has been tremendous."

In lieu of paychecks for the musicians, a spittoon labeled "donations" sits at the front of the wooden stage.

A brown patchwork quilt tacked to the wall serves as backdrop for the rustic platform that Robbins built out of "a pile of lumber and nails." He also made the cafe's tables and benches. The atmosphere hints at bohemian, but doesn't press the issue.

"I'm interested in history and you can't find this kind of music too many places," said Louise Diaz, who spent the evening with her husband, Bill, listening to an Irish folk quartet. "It's kind of like traveling back into the '70s. This seems more like an academic crowd. They're definitely not the disco crowd, the glamour crowd."

Folk balladeers, flutists, guitarists and a variety of other musicians not found at most nightclubs perform nightly at Maggie's.

That emphasis on the music's content and diversity is what performer Rick Saxton finds so appealing about Maggie's. The 39-year-old conjures images of Bob Dylan with his nasal, almost spoken, lyrics and casual manner.

"In alcohol clubs, music is not the focus. Musicians perform to create a mood in which people can (drink) and be socially communicative," said Saxton, who performs a variety of '60s ballads and some original songs tempered with social commentary.

Saxton, who waits tables at Maggie's by day and strums his guitar--sometimes with bassist Rex Wilson--by night, quit his job as an electronics technician in 1982 to devote his full energies to music. He said he and many other local musicians trying to become established are thankful for the coffeehouse's varied visitors--several of them Vietnam veterans like himself--before whom the musicians can perfect their techniques and try out new music.

While the leisurely atmosphere appeals to many a harried yuppie, folk cafes like Maggie's--one of a small handful in conservative San Diego County--are also an oasis for '60s activists who are not ready to trade their utopian ideals for running shoes and Volvos.

"I feel like keeping my music available for those who need it," Saxton said after finishing a Simon and Garfunkel tune and shoving his gray felt hat up his sweating forehead. "That whole experience (of Vietnam) taught me that as a writer I have something to say."

Guitar soloist Cathy Curtis has a different style than Saxton, but she also says she is drawn to Maggie's by its discriminating audience.

"The people really listen. I feel like I'm really appreciated and I don't have to contend with a drunk falling over the bar," Curtis said. "I've played in bars, and I've had problems with managers saying, 'I'm not selling enough drinks.' Instead, the people (at Maggie's) were listening."

Saxton points to a common attraction in the cafe's unpretentious style: "No matter who you are, no matter what you wear, you can go to Maggie's. It's not a 'scene' place."

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