COSTA MESA — To Costa Mesa native Dan Bradley, it wasn’t a question of if he would open Memphis Café, but when.
A UCLA graduate and former club promoter, Bradley, 44, knew he wanted to open the restaurant in his hometown.
A marketing executive at Le Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach — now the Fairmont — Bradley exchanged the suit and tie for a chance to work at a favorite eatery: the Renaissance Café.
Bradley felt he could learn from the popular café. Now closed, it had locations in Brea, Laguna Beach and Dana Point. While there, he met Diego Velasco and Andy Christenson, his future business partners.
“It wasn’t until I met them that I was like, ‘I really have to have these guys,’” Bradley said. “It couldn’t have been anyone. It had to be them.”
During late nights of shooting pool, they hatched plans about their future businesses.
“Before I met him, he had the idea of Memphis. It was his brainchild,” Velasco said. “At one time, it was a coffeehouse/billiards place. After Renaissance, it started to develop into a Euro-style café.”
In 1994, Velasco was studying at the California Culinary Academy when he got the news that they found the spot for Memphis Café. It was an indiscriminate building from the ‘50s with a stone façade at Bristol Street and Randolph Avenue in Costa Mesa.
While in his San Francisco dorm room, the then-22-year-old made his first menu as head chef using the retro exterior as inspiration for the mixture of traditional American, Creole and Southwestern cuisine.
The mid-century modernist look that Memphis is known for plays a big part in its brand because, to Bradley, that’s the design that makes the Tennessee city iconic.
“When I think of the furniture and the modernism, I think of Memphis,” Bradley said.
Bradley hoped Memphis, which opened in August 1995, would get people to see that there was more to Orange County than meets the eye.
“Back then in Orange County, in 1995, people wanted to kind of escape, it seemed,” he said. “There wasn’t really a cultural hotbed at the time. I loved it here.”
He hoped the funky soul food restaurant would temporarily transport people and make them ignore their expectations about the area.
“We always got that comment when we first opened, ‘Wow! This doesn’t seem like a place you’d find in Orange County,’” he said.
Coincidently, a few things worked in their favor. The Lab opened the same year, making the area on Bristol a spot for the indie, foodie-types. A favorable review in the Los Angeles Times put them on the culinary map.
Bradley, Christenson and Velasco didn’t stop there. They had another idea: a music venue.
“Detroit Bar has always been in my list of places I wanted to open, even when we opened Memphis,” he said. “For me, music is kind of the driving force.”
The Detroit Bar opened on 19th Street in Costa Mesa in 2001, quickly becoming a hotspot for indie artists making a name for themselves. Musicians such as Stereolab, Matt Costa, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Modest Mouse have performed on their stage. Elliott Smith performed at Detroit Bar a month before his 2003 suicide.
Bradley credits his team for attracting names to the small, two-room bar and venue, which resembles a comfortable nightclub.
“I think our team that works here does a great job of treating the bands well,” Bradley said. “They could play bigger places, but we’re fortunate that they come back and choose us over a larger venue.”
Six months after opening Detroit Bar, they opened their second Memphis Café at the historic Santora building in Santa Ana.
“When we first opened our Santa Ana location, it might have been a little ahead of its time, but now that area is really blossoming,” Bradley said.
To Memphis patrons, the second location has a distinct vibe, trading the homey, sultry, Southern feel at the Bristol location for a clean, airy, modern look. The menu is also larger at Santa Ana due to a bigger kitchen.
In 2003, Christenson left the group to focus on real estate. Jason Valdez and Dan Bradley’s brother, Ryan Bradley, joined the team.
Three years later, the Memphis Group acquired a new location. This time, it was already a local institution: the Tin Lizzie Saloon, a gay bar that had been around since the ‘50s.
“When we were opening Memphis [in Costa Mesa] … after a long days work we’d cruise over across the street to this bar called the Tin Lizzie,” Bradley said.
Bradley told the owner to contact them if he ever wanted to sell. The owner did call and in 2005, the Tin Lizzie was a part of the Memphis Group.
“One of the deals I made with Alan is if I purchased the bar, I would maintain it as a gay bar,” he said. “I would just improve upon what he’s created.”
Now, Bradley is not only the majority owner of the Memphis Group, but a father to boot; he just had a baby girl named August with his longtime girlfriend Amanda Blosel. To the former college student — who loved to throw parties with good music — he couldn’t be happier with how things turned out.
“It’s just great that I get to do this for a living,” he said. “Whether it’s on the restaurant side of the things or the live music side of things, it’s just been a passion of mine.”