Plugging Gaslamp’s Country-Western Void : Night Life: Marcus Demian says his Buffalo Joe’s Barbeque Grill and Saloon will keep things hopping with good country music and food.
While visiting San Diego in May of 1991, Marcus Demian stood on a corner in the Gaslamp Quarter and concluded that the urban theme park of Irish pubs, Italian and Iberian eateries, jazz nooks and hip coffee houses lacked a vital element: country-Western music.
To the veteran restaurateur, an American Indian originally from Yakima, Wash., the void was significant enough to yank him out of uneasy retirement in Red Lodge, Mont., and relocate him to downtown San Diego. There, he set out to find the perfect spot for an authentically Western food-and-music palace.
On Thursday night, Demian will realize the fruits of a year of planning, negotiating, and hard work when he opens Buffalo Joe’s Barbeque Grill and Saloon at 5th Avenue and Market Street. Besides the “home-style,” mostly Southern cooking in which Demian takes great pride, Buffalo Joe’s will feature live country music seven nights a week.
“It’s the only music I listen to,” Demian said last week as workers put the finishing touches on the saloon’s interior. His voice was barely audible above the country music blaring from the house sound system.
“I’ve been listening to country music all my life. It’s just in me, and I saw an opportunity to bring it to an area of town that didn’t have any.”
Demian looks much younger than his 64 years, but he speaks with the flinty, unhurried assuredness of someone who, in his own words, has “been around the horn a few times.” Dressed in Levi’s, boots, a Western shirt and cowboy hat, he stood behind a 65-foot wooden bar that he claims is the longest in San Diego. It comes as something of a surprise that the behemoth was not in Demian’s original plans for Buffalo Joe’s.
“I’ve never had a full bar before, and I didn’t want to have one now,” he said. “But a friend told me I’d never make it here without one, so I decided to do it right. It’s a standup bar--no stools--a real cowboy bar like I remember from Montana.”
One quickly learns that down-home authenticity, from food preparation to building materials, from decor to entertainment, is paramount to Demian. The restaurant will have tanks to hold live specimens of the menu’s crayfish, crabs, mountain trout and catfish. The kitchen boasts a specially built, 9-foot-by-9-foot, closed-pit barbecue oven in which meats will be cooked over mesquite, avocado wood and oak.
The main room, which Demian describes as being “almost like a little museum,” is festooned with genuine Western and American Indian artifacts. Behind the bandstand is a “memorial wall” covered with drawings and photos of Indians, from Sitting Bull (Demian’s wife is a direct descendant) to Demian’s terminally ill brother, Sun Bear, pictured in healthier days wearing full Yakima tribal regalia.
High on the wall are Demian’s peace pipe and medicine bag, and an “Indian hoop” that by tradition is hung outside one’s teepee to ward off evil spirits. Nearby are hung Demian’s weathered long rifle and a quiver filled with arrows he has actually used in hunting.
“I hate plastic, and there’s nothing hokey or plastic about this place,” Demian said firmly. “The whole interior is made from real wood. And all the food is made from scratch, nothing is from cans.”
Buffalo Joe’s 8,000 square feet also includes a couple of things not normally found in such an establishment. The Bank of America was the venue’s previous tenant, and its money vault is now a walk-in cooler holding 50 kegs of draft beer. There is even a seemingly incongruous nursery room around the corner from the upstairs bar.
“Children and families are always welcome here,” Demian explained. “Kids are free to run around and even dance if they want, or they can play in the nursery room.”
The huge saloon also features a generous dance floor and a long row of dining tables that seems designed to encourage fraternizing. There is nothing nouvelle about either the cuisine or the service.
“We don’t use tablecloths or napkins,” Demian said. “On each table we put a sheet of butcherblock paper, a roll of paper towels, and a bucket of water with limes in it for washing your hands. You eat with your fingers and throw the bones in a bucket on the floor. When you order crayfish, we dump the whole load on your table. No plates.”
For all its conceptual quirks, Buffalo Joe’s most interesting feature is Demian himself. With a little coaxing, he relates that he’s been in the restaurant business on and off for 45 years, having run establishments from New York to California. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he was partner with Jim Baker in the Aware Inn, a very successful health-food restaurant in L.A. that some credit with starting the West Coast trend in health-conscious eating.
More recently, Demian ran the Marina Coffee Roasters cafe in Marina del Rey. Two years ago, he sold the business and retired to Montana, but it didn’t take him long to realize that leisure wasn’t a good fit.
“I just couldn’t take it easy,” Demian said. “I was getting a little restless by the time I came out here for a visit. I’m inclined to country-Western music, but I also happen to be a very fine chef who makes what I consider the best barbecue sauce in the country. So, I decided to combine the two interests to create what I think will be a winning combination down here.”
Demian’s richly varied life has included stints in the armed forces (World War II, Korea and Vietnam), and even a stretch as a Hollywood writer.
Fiercely proud of his heritage, Demian hired an American Indian contractor to renovate Buffalo Joe’s, but even that didn’t spare him from unexpected criticism for alleged racial insensitivity.
“I was going to call this place Injun Joe’s, which is my nickname,” he said, “but a local native American brother complained that the name demeaned the tribe. I mean, I was at Wounded Knee during the uprising in 1973. You can look around and see that I’m proud of what I am. But I decided not to make an issue out of it. That was the first time I’d ever been accused of something like that.”
Buffalo Joe’s also represents Demian’s first attempt at presenting live entertainment, but it’s a challenge he welcomes.
“I’ve got Ron Neifert at Coconut Productions booking the talent, and he’s going to keep this place hopping,” Demian said. “Mondays, for example, will be devoted to square dancing--to a live band, not a recording. That’s geared to providing fun for the seniors, to give them a place where they can stay active and involved in life.”
On Tuesdays, Buffalo Joe’s will feature bluegrass music. Wednesday is “open-mike” talent night. On weekends (Thursday through Sunday nights), professional country-Western bands will play 45-minute sets interspersed with solo acts doing 25-minute sets.
“Between the bar, the food and the music, I guarantee you there’ll never be a dull moment around here,” Demian said.
* Thursday through Sunday, Buffalo Joe’s will feature local country-Western band Prairie Fire, and solo artist Jeannette Louise. Music begins at 8 p.m. The restaurant is at 5th Avenue and Market Street downtown. Call 236-1616.