Club M: A Menu-Venue Mix : Italian Restaurant Serves Up Bands at Night

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each evening, shortly after 9, beer replaces red wine, and the lasagna may be done for the night. The dinner crowd gives way to the dance crowd. Canoga Park's Mancini's Restaurant, an Italian eatery, becomes Club M, the West Valley's new home of live music for almost any appetite.

Sample the menu: Sundays--ballroom dancing, big band music. Mondays--Dead Head Night. Tuesdays--jam sessions. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays--rock 'n' roll. Thursdays--Top 40.

"The competition with Italian restaurants is so thick," said Dennis Mancini, "that I had to find another way to entice people." He has owned the restaurant since 1970 and got his liquor license in 1988.

Mancini opened the club in January, bringing in Matthew Smyrnos--who has contacts with L.A. bands--to book entertainment. The first month was "a disaster," Smyrnos recalled. "We'd get five or 10 people a night. I hated it."

The club raised the cover price to $7, then lowered it to $5, and briefly contemplated no admission charge at all. (The current cover is $3 during the week, $5 on weekends.)

Finally, business picked up. Smyrnos attributed the turnaround to the introduction of new sound and lighting equipment and other renovations; altogether, Mancini spent $230,000 to remodel the restaurant. Soon bands that were reluctant to play at a restaurant far from the Hollywood strip, or even the East Valley, began signing up for frequent gigs. They earn a fixed percentage of the gate.

"We've played at FM Station and the Palomino, and the equipment at Club M is the best we've come across," said Greg Herman, guitarist for the Valley-based psychedelic group Pur'p'l Tur't'lz. "Plus, it doesn't have the L.A. club atmosphere, where everyone is up-tight, and it makes us play a lot more relaxed. There's no attitude there."

Which is exactly the way Mancini and Smyrnos envisioned the club--an escape from the strip scene, yet still a venue for the best possible rock 'n' roll talent. The square dance floor is surrounded by several dozen tables, and there are plenty of good views of the stage. Among other local bands that have performed there: Tuff, Captain Cardiac & the Coronaries, and the Dead Center. "There are none of the hassles, like parking, that you get in Hollywood," Smyrnos said. "Down there, you'll spend $10 to $20 a night, and have to deal with the whole scene."

Still, is the club too secluded from Hollywood and the East Valley to draw enough customers, and will the record industry show up to check out new acts?

"We're surrounded by people in this area," Smyrnos responded. "That's not even counting Simi Valley, which is 10 minutes away, and that place is dead. Kids from there come here."

Similarly, he said, the club has held several showcase events attended by industry representatives.

In 1988, another Canoga Park club, Michael Fell's Industry, tried to make it in the West Valley but closed about six months later. Smyrnos sees no parallel. "They were expensive, and we've been able to establish a nightclub without losing the aspect of being a restaurant. We still have that base."

Smyrnos sees the club's versatility as its chief asset. On Wednesdays, it holds a "No Top 40 Junk" night for people tired of the familiar radio music. "We're not restricted to a specific format," he said. "Take a place like the Country Club, which has to rely on speed metal shows."

Three weeks ago, Club M started a new Sunday night series of ballroom dancing. Couples, mostly in their 50s and 60s, danced to the sounds of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Frank Sinatra's "Chicago."

"We don't do that disco stuff," said Barbara Rose of Encino. "We like to do the swing and the cha-cha. And there just aren't that many places in the Valley where older people can go dancing. Most of the places have small dance floors."

Two nights later, the Geniuses, a blues/jazz band, jammed before about 50 people--200 is the club's capacity. The crowd was much younger.

"These are the people we're going after the most," Smyrnos said. "They want the rock 'n' roll."

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