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Play It Again Sam Music Returns

The piano entertainer is back in vogue these days as the gentler music of an earlier time has again found appreciative audiences.

The widespread popularity of jazzy songsters such as Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Feinstein--and recent movies like “The Fabulous Baker boys"--certainly have something to do with the trend.

Whether it’s lively Cole Porter show tunes, Frank Sinatra classics or mellow songs of the 1970s, if you’re in the mood for piano music, there are entertainers in North County bars and restaurants tickling the ivories.

Although a fair amount of piano entertainment out there remains in the background, in some establishments, it takes center stage.

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There are veteran piano players who cover everything from Glenn Miller to Elton John and sprinkle in classical pieces, while others are showy entertainers who play popular favorites and whoop it up with the audience by ad-libbing one-liners between melodies.

Despite its renewed popularity, long-time players say the current interest in piano music is nouveau nostalgia and doesn’t quite compete with an era past.

“I don’t think piano entertainers can ever come back to what they were,” said Beverly Slater, who rides the keys of an ebony baby grand at La Costa Resort and Spa’s International Saloon weekend nights.

“The music was more universal back then. It’s a different era today. Young musicians don’t learn as many songs. Forty years ago, when Frank Sinatra did a song, everyone else did it. Musicians today tend to do their own songs.”

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Slater, whose play list ranges from George Gershwin to Billie Holiday, lists her repertoire at more than 2,500 tunes including “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Old Cape Cod.”

Slater also tosses in a few original melodies, including a romantic song called, “I Sing Every Love Song for You,” which she wrote in 10 minutes while driving on a freeway to a dentist appointment on a recent Friday evening.

Seated at a her piano, Slater welcomes each guest as they enter the bar, which is decorated in a stately mix of maritime lounge and European parlor. Brass rails and huge flags from around the globe line the red cloth-covered walls. Patrons can hunker around the mahogany bar surrounding the piano or sit in love seats clustered around the lamp-lit room.

Slater, a petite, white-haired grandmother, said she has been playing the La Costa gig for four years and enjoys making people feel like they’re a part of the atmosphere. She invites requests (having obligingly played “Misty” more than 8,000 times in her career) and encourages people to join in when she sings.

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“What’s interesting to me is that, no matter what country people are from, they can sing. Music is the international language,” said Slater, who started playing at age 6 and has worked in the music business for more than 40 years.

Although the most requested song Slater plays these days is “Through the Eyes of Love,” she smiled in delight when an elegantly dressed white-haired couple from St. Louis seated at the bar requested “The Very Thought of You.”

Because management opts not to furnish a tip jar in this classy establishment, patrons thank Slater for playing cherished oldies on their way out.

Just across Interstate 5 at Coco Palms Tropical Bistro on Highway 101 in Encinitas, piano entertainer Fran Loskota belts out old standards and crowd pleasers Friday and Saturday nights to mostly casually dressed young couples.

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The small and feisty brunette, whose style is reminiscent of a Las Vegas lounge singer, encourages patrons seated at the built-in bar surrounding a white baby grand piano to shout out requests. And she sometimes reminds them that they are welcome to contribute to her tip jar.

Loskota plays in the restaurant’s small dimly lighted bar area. A huge mural of a moonlit-beach is painted in neon on one wall. Floral green wallpaper and mirrors adorn the other two. Between ordering Coronas and tropical fruit drinks, patrons most often request the hit “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Loskota usually kicks things off with a rousing version of “Rescue Me” and “Since I Fell for You.” As the evening progresses, she will throw in some Billie Holiday songs and probably Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.”

Not all piano players work in bar environments, either.

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At the Shepherd natural-food restaurant in Encinitas, just a block north of the Self Realization Fellowship, the piano music, mostly hits from the 70s and early 80s, sets a laid-back atmosphere.

Families with small children and seniors are comfortably gathered in this low-key eatery with 11 tables and a salad bar. On a recent night, there was no applause when pianist Jonathan Rivers finished playing “Ebony and Ivory,” and other pop tunes. Diners may have been too busy ordering non-fertile organic egg omeletes, homemade pizza with soy cheese and the Asian lentil loaf.

There are small bowls on each table, however, to receive tips if patrons wish to thank the pianist for the music. The note attached reads, “The music is freely given--all tips, however, are gratefully received.”

Here’s a sampling of North County restaurants and hotels that feature live piano music:

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Coco Palms Tropical Bistro, 1950 N. Highway 101, Encinitas, 942-1444. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.-10 p.m.

Flying Bridge Restaurant & Lounge, 1103 N. Hill St., Oceanside, 722-1151. In the main restaurant nightly, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.

La Costa Resort & Spa, International Saloon, 2100 Costa de Mar Road, Carlsbad, 438-9111. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

Mille Fleurs, 1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar, 792-0476. Friday 8 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday 8 p.m.-midnight.

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Pacifica del Mar, 1555 Camino del Mar, Del Mar, 792-0476. Friday 8 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday 8 p.m.-midnight.

Portofino Restaurant, 1108 1st St., Encinitas, 942-8442. Thursday-Saturday 6:30 p.m.-11 p.m.

The Shepherd restaurant, 1126 1st St., Encinitas, 753-1124. Nightly 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.

It’s not necessary to wait for nightfall to hear piano music. Several hotels offer sweet sounds during Sunday brunch and some feature music during afternoon tea. Here’s a partial list of where to go:

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Carmel Highland Golf & Tennis Resort, 14455 Penasquitos Drive, San Diego, 672-9100. In the Terrace’s Cafe, Sundays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

Del Mar Hilton, 15575 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar, 792-5200. In the main lobby, Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Inn L’Auberge, 1540 Camino del Mar, Del Mar, 259-1515. In the main lobby, Sunday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and daily, 3 p.m.-7 p.m.

Rancho Bernardo Inn, 17550 Bernardo Oaks Drive, San Diego, 277-2146. Daily from 6 p.m.-10 p.m. in the El Bizcocho restaurant and 4 p.m.-5 p.m. daily in the hotel’s music lounge.

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Tilt N’ Kilt restaurant, 1660 Capalina Road, San Marcos, 744-9730, Sunday, 4 p.m.-8 p.m.


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