Flashback 2015: The Wayfarer Heads Into Year Two Devoted To New Music

The Wayfarer

VENUE SPOTLIGHT: The Wayfarer photo: Dan Atkinson

Remember concert venues? Meccas for music lovers pre-pandemic? We thought we’d re-run this feature on The Wayfarer so you don’t forget.

When people look at Orange County, a thriving live music scene might not be the first thing they see, but one small, reinvented spot is trying, with unwavering might, to change that. The Wayfarer: A House Of Social Provisions opened its doors in July of 2014, and a year later the spot is more popular, and important, than ever.

When the owner of the former Detroit Bar sold the location to local entrepreneur Jeffery Chon in early 2014, many Orange County residents hung their heads in disappointment. There was a panic that the area, already short on venues, was going to lose an establishment that had helped propel the local music scene. Musicians worried they were losing a home where they could test the waters as an artist then mature and grow into the genre they loved, or better yet, create a brand new sound that was all their own. Fears were laid to rest when it was announced that the new bar would maintain its music presence.

Keeping the reputation of Detroit Bar while making the space fresh and new was an interesting challenge for Chon. “I definitely was concerned with the Detroit Bar branding,” Chon said. “It was a double-edged sword. Obviously having its long-standing music reputation, but also having been around beyond its ‘prime’. It was a difficult thought-process in figuring out how to keep that great reputation while offering a new, improved ambience to our community.”

Chon’s remodeling concept involved a completely new style and appearance for the bar’s layout. Even a year later, his completed vision has customers blown away, to say the very least. The location has a fresh look, more space, and a much more accessible bar along with a new sound system, from local Costa Mesa company QSC, that has reinvigorated the performances. Visually, the biggest change has to be the unveiling of the space’s open ceiling. For those who have spent any time in the venue’s past incarnations, it’s hard to believe that hiding under those low ceilings was this beautiful piece of architecture. Fortunately, the opening of the ceiling didn’t damage the acoustics of the concert space since the room is small enough that sound reverberates out well.

The changes make it much easier for all people in the building to watch shows as well as socialize, play pool, or have a bite. Behind the bar sits the newly installed kitchen where Chon used his previous restaurant entrepreneur experience (Chon also owns The Alley in Newport Beach and Tabu Shabu in Eastside Costa Mesa) to put together a creative menu that adds an entirely new dynamic to the bar. Rather than having the choice of two fast food places a ways down the road for a quick, late-night snack, patrons can select from a house menu of eclectic treats, such as spicy shrimp scampi or avocado fries.

The vast changes weren’t all easy. The Wayfarer is Chon’s first experience operating a music venue, and there is a definitely learning curve to the endeavor. “Quite a few difficulties in learning anything for the first time,” Chon said. “But having a passion for something and being able to project this passion into a day-to-day effort to learn something new made it easier. Understanding the actual economics of music and the industry was my biggest challenge. Luckily with the help of more experienced people, like Eric Keilman (talent buyer), the learning curve was in my favor.”

Keilman has called 843 W. 19th St. his musical home for years, first as the house talent booker for Detroit Bar, and then carrying his role over to The Wayfarer during the ownership change. The man knows his music, local talents especially, and he’s had a front row seat while watching the Orange County music scene evolve.

“It seems like the bands in the area are getting better and better,” Keilman said. “There seems to be somewhat of a scene starting. It started at Detroit Bar, but it seems like it’s growing. Some of these local bands are coming out of the woodwork and playing great music. I mean, we’ve had some national stuff come through, but it’s really nice to see how strong the local bands are.”

It’s that passion and appreciation for local musicians that makes Keilman so good at his job. Although not a musician himself, music is fully ingrained in his life. “I’m always going to shows. I’ve been going to shows since I was like, 14 or 15, and I’m 39 now,” Keilman said. “I’ve resolved to working in restaurants my whole life just so I could go to the shows I want to.”

His devotion to music also makes him an empathetic talent booker. “I worked with local bands before doing booking so I know how their day goes. They go to work, they have to possibly load their car before they go to work, come straight from work, play all night, and then get home, so it’s a long day, and then they have to get up and go to work the next day. So you just appreciate the time they put in.”

Keilman seems just as impressed with Chon’s work ethic as he does with the local Orange County bands that make The Wayfarer their home. During the three-month renovation period, Chon was as hands-on as they come.

“He (Chon) was here every day, even with the construction, he was hands-on,” Keilman said. “He was here eight in the morning until close. Just to get the place done in three months, he had to be here everyday and help out. He’s here every day making sure everything is running right and it’s really nice to see.”

It’s rare to meet a new owner who puts so much personal time and sweat into a project and it shows a dedication that can be lacking at other venues. Chon’s devotion to the continued success of Orange County’s favorite spot for local music is evident in his desires for continued improvements in the building. Keilman describes Chon’s latest undertaking, “He just came up to us a couple weeks ago and said, ‘I’m going to extend the stage out.’ So some of his muscle is into that right now.” Chon’s dedication to The Wayfarer’s continued improvement provides hope that this music venue is here to stay for a long time.

Even before bands and customers could see inside the reimagined iconic spot, Chon was dropping his heart, talent, and a lot of cash into the place, not only working to restore the space to its prime, but to make it better than it had ever been. A year later, after so many epic shows, good drinks, and delectable meals, The Wayfarer crew can say, “mission accomplished.”

But what is the most rewarding part of it all for Chon? “Whenever I have opened a new venture, the most fulfilling part is the people, plain and simple,” Chon said. “Being introduced to a new group of ‘regulars’ new clientele is the thrill of the hospitality and entertainment industry. With the Wayfarer, I was lucky enough to have local music be just as new and exciting. Both customers and musicians alike, were the new experiences that provide the foundation of doing what I do.”

With Chon’s industrious creativity and Keilman’s unparalleled local music knowledge, The Wayfarer will continue to be a welcoming home for the many talented artists who develop in Orange County. It’s a place designed to nourish up-and-coming musicians, as well as provide a superior space for more established national bands that stop in town. Best of all, it’s a sanctuary for all those who love to listen. Many different genres of artists and audiences will pass through its open doors, but one thing will ring true to all, The Wayfarer is a gem of Southern California.