San Diego Ask a nonresident of Imperial Beach to name a restaurant or bar in San Diego County's southernmost beach town. If he can name anything at all, it likely will be Ye Olde Plank Inn. The tavern has occupied the ground floor of the two-story building at the west end of Palm Avenue for nearly four decades. In that time, it's opened every day at 6:00 a.m. and closed every night at 2:00 a.m. "The Plank," as it's known locally, has achieved institution status in Imperial Beach. But according to its owner, 73-year-old Al Winkelman, the Plank bar is under attack by a city government that wants the venerable watering hole gone.
It's only 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in December. But already, seven customers occupy barstools at the end of the Plank's three-sided bar closest to the front door. Most drink coffee -- better than most bar coffee -- while a couple nurse beers and nibble on hot wings. They're clearly regulars, and judging by the boisterousness of their conversation, they all know each other. They're talking and laughing so loudly that it's difficult to hear the very soft-spoken Winkelman say, "That blonde with her back to us is a lawyer from Chula Vista. And this woman on the corner, her name is Tappan. Her grandfather is the one that started the Tappan kitchen range company. The guy sitting next to her is a retired SEAL. There used to be a man who came in here damn near every day who was one of the original people with Apple Computer."
The Plank's decor combines elements of three or four themes. Over the bar hangs a palm frond ceiling reminiscent of a Baja-style palapa. The bar and tabletops are trimmed with molding cut to look like nautical cables. Surf paraphernalia hangs on the walls. The back room's dusty-cornered concrete floor, neon beer signs, and two pool tables give it a middle-American honky-tonk look. Except for the ruby earring adorning his left ear, nothing about Winkelman's appearance says "owns a popular beachside bar." He's dressed in comfortable shoes, gray slacks, and two windbreakers zipped up against the damp morning air. His thick blond-gone-gray hair, roughly parted on the left, lies tousled on his head. His soft blue eyes reflect his kind, gentle manner. His nickname, Uncle Al, fits perfectly. "I got that nickname in 1979 when my nephew spent a summer working in the bar with me. He was always calling to me, 'Uncle Al, Uncle Al.' Some of the customers thought that was funny and started calling me Uncle Al too."
Asked when he bought Ye Olde Plank Inn, Winkelman answers, "Oh, I can't remember. Between 35 and 40 years ago. Let's say 37 years ago." During the first 30 or so of those years, Winkelman says business was great and life was a breeze in his bar by the beach. But starting "6 or 7" years ago, Winkelman says he and the Plank became the focus of what he calls harassment by the City of Imperial Beach in the form of the municipality's code enforcement department.
"I'll show you what I mean." He hops off his bar stool and walks behind the bar. "Around 1999, all of a sudden we've got a brand-new fire inspector, and he needs a whole bunch of things done. For instance, I had a fire extinguisher back here. It had been in the same place for 30 years, and all my employees knew where it was. But he said we had to move it. This back door over here, I had to build a new door for it. Before, I had a door with bars on it, but the way it was built, it wasn't really a door, but we could have pushed it out in an emergency. We had to replace that with this door that has a panic bar. This building was built in 1886. Since it was built, the front door has always swung in. But they decided it had to swing out. I didn't want to have it swing out because of foot traffic here on the sidewalk. It will either be blocking traffic or, if it's closed, someone is going to push it and smash someone's face with the door. So I went out and bought all these hinges here that allow the door to swing in or out. When we open at 6:00 in the morning, we swing it in and lock it in the open position. It stays that way until we close at 2:00 a.m. It's what we'd done for 30 years. So why we had to change it to swing out is beyond me. Especially, since the fire code says a door only has to swing out if the room capacity is 50 or more. You can see on the sign right there, my capacity is 36. I pointed that out to them, but they wanted it this way anyway."
Another source of grief with the fire inspector was the palapa-style ceiling over the bar area. "We put that grass ceiling on there on Labor Day of 1969," Winkelman says, "and there was fire retardant on it and everything. But they wanted it all down. So we had to take everything down and replace it with newer stuff that won't burn. But it is a lot of time and effort to take everything down and research it and order it and put it up there. And it cost a lot of money."
Though he didn't like it, Winkelman spent the time and money to comply with the fire inspector's wishes. But he drew a line in the sand when the City said he could no longer park his cars on the small lawn on the corner of Palm and Seacoast, part of the same property the Plank sits on. Standing out on the patchy lawn under a couple of palm trees, Winkelman explains, "I own three Corvettes, and I used to park a couple of them on the grass right here. I would drive them up over the curb and park them here. This is my property, I own it, and it's zoned commercial. Now along comes David Garcias" -- Imperial Beach's director of code enforcement -- "and he tells me that I can't park here, that I have to have a driveway, and it has to be concreted, I can't park on the lawn, and all that stuff. Basically, I told him to go away, quit bothering me. I am legal. So anyway, after quite a while he comes over here with the ordinance telling me, 'This ordinance says it has to be parked on concrete.' And I said, 'David, this ordinance refers to single-family and two-family dwellings in a residential area. This is commercial property.' He came back one or two days later and said, 'I found a new ordinance that does affect you,' and he showed it to me. I read it, and he had kept the entire ordinance, but he changed a couple of words and deleted the last clause, 'in a residential area.' And so then he was able to apply it to me."