Sagebrush Cantina : Calabasas Watering Hole Draws Thousands on Weekends and Has Some Neighbors Grumbling

Spieler is a Calabasas free-lance writer

Beginning Friday evenings and continuing through the weekend, as many as 8,000 customers descend on a sprawling wood-and-glass restaurant in Calabasas called the Sagebrush Cantina.

Cantina regulars wouldn't dream of spending a Sunday afternoon anywhere else, but local homeowners and businessmen bemoan the congestion that clogs Calabasas Road because of such loyalty.

The cantina, with its sawdust floor, octagonal bar and exposed wood-beam ceilings, lures an eclectic mixture of patrons. An old Volkswagen pulls into the restaurant's crowded parking lot followed by a long, white limousine. Families with young children and babies share the cantina's tree-covered patio with bikers and senior citizens.

Nearly everyone gobbles "Super Nachos" washed down by pitchers of margaritas.

Conversation at one table centers on plans for little Buddy's ninth-birthday party, while, at another, the topic is the new beach house at Mandalay Bay. A 35ish woman with shoulder-length blond hair adjusts the shoulder pads on her rhinestone-studded white Krizia sweat shirt.

Appeal in Atmosphere

Cantina owner Bob McCord attributes his restaurant's appeal as much to atmosphere as food: "We had a patio when no one else had one nine years ago."

McCord was a Hollywood soundman until a plane crash during the making of an episode of "Death Valley Days" ended his career. He was one of three survivors.

In 1974, he decided to go into the restaurant business. "I always wanted a little barbecue place. But that didn't work out, so I stayed with Mexican."

Times were tough. "Things were so bad that at one point I had to sell my watch to buy food for the restaurant," says McCord, "and then I wasn't sure I'd even sell the food."

But the food--and the Cantina "experience"--started to sell. During the next 12 years the place grew from a 12-stool bar with two employees to a restaurant that seats more than 800, employs 150 and serves 3,600 meals and 300 gallons of margaritas during a typical weekend. There are Sagebrush Cantina T-shirts, sun visors and bumper stickers.

The popularity of the Cantina has made McCord a happy man, but has caused some problems for neighboring stores and restaurants. The Cantina has parking for 200 cars, which is seldom enough.

Neighbor Piqued

Jil Pique, who owns Jili's Sushi Bar across the street from the Cantina, complains that the weekend crowds from the cantina hurt his business.

"People are afraid to come here because of the animals across the street, especially on Sunday. I've had to call the towing company because they are inconsiderate and don't care where they park," Pique said, waving his arm at his restaurant's parking lot.

Restaurateur Gaetano Palmeri of Gaetano's, just up the boardwalk from Jili's agrees: "I have had a lot of problems on the weekends with those people. I ask them politely to move their cars and they swear at me. One guy blocked my driveway."

McCord shrugs off the complaints. He says he was there first.

"Parking is a problem, sure, but the street belongs to the city. I helped these guys get started in business. No one came out here before I opened up. I feel I have a good relationship with them, but if they are too cheap to put a guy on out in front of their places at $3.30 an hour that's their problem.

"I don't have room to expand anymore to add more parking, but the lot is patrolled and we do what we can."

15 Security Officers

McCord employs 15 security officers to ward off any problems created by cantina crowds.

Calabasas Park resident Gail Brooks says she won't drive the stretch of Calabasas Road in front of the cantina on Sunday afternoons. "It's almost like a game of chicken. Who is going to give in first?" Brooks said.

Florence Gadbois, whose art gallery is in the Parkway Galleria across from the cantina, says she has been stranded in the middle of the street while trying to cross.

"It's like taking your life in your hands because of the increase in traffic here. The cantina traffic has caused me problems with parking as well, but it has just generally gotten more congested here."

Asked for Crosswalk

Gadbois said she requested that the county place a crosswalk somewhere along the most heavily congested stretch of road. Roz Robson of the county road department said the request is under consideration and that a decision will be made by the end of September.

Meanwhile, the crowds continue the weekend pilgrimage to the margarita mecca.

"I love coming here on weekends. It's so nice to be able to sit outside and not in some smoky bar. You can come as you are, and it's always different," said Donna Young of Topanga.

Howard Koff sat astride his Honda Magna with his 9-year-old son, David. "We came here today because this where the bikers come," Koff said.

And, indeed, they do; on any given Sunday there are about 200 motorcycles parked in the lot, according to cantina manager Hendrick Mowalis.

Alesta Vaswani and her friend, Susan Lukasiak of Woodland Hills, visit the Cantina on Friday nights, after work at Prudential Insurance, and again on Sunday afternoons. But they, too, are a bit alarmed at how the place has changed.

"It was nicer before everybody knew about it," Vaswani said.

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