Panama 66 is open-air restaurant and jazz venue in the heart of Balboa Park.
  • Panama 66 is open-air restaurant and jazz venue in the heart of Balboa Park.
  • Photograph by Manuel Cruces Camberos
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Panama 66

1450 Plaza de Panama, Balboa Park

Entrepreneur Jeff Motch is one of a four-person collective that owns and operates Blind Lady Ale House in Normal Heights; Tiger! Tiger! in North Park, and Panama 66 in Balboa Park. The last, an open-air café positioned next to the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, has been featuring jazz on a regular basis during its nearly four years of operation.

I asked Motch where the idea for that particular venue was born.

“I’ve been here for 30 years, and when you have a kid, Balboa Park is just a part of your life,” he said. “I have a friend who has been working at the museum for 20 years, and I was always bugging him about the space there, because it seemed perfect for serving food and drink. It reminded me a lot of the places they have in Europe. Eventually he let me know that the museum was accepting proposals for a contract there. We applied without ever thinking we’d get it.”

So was live music always a part of the master plan?

“Our original goal was to feed people,” says Motch. “The entertainment angle came later. Everything has to be coordinated with the museum and the City of San Diego. We weren’t even sure if music would be allowed there.”

Eventually Panama 66 got approval for live music. “The very first live event we hosted was the band Creepxotica,” Motch recalled. “They have a very large following of young people, and we wanted to start off with a bang. From there, I started to reach out to people on social media, like Erika Davies and Gilbert Castellanos, people who I had seen perform and who I thought would fit the space. My programming concept is 100 percent driven by what I think would sound great in that space, and jazz fits perfectly.”

So perfectly, in fact, that when Gilbert Castellanos was having difficulty finding a venue for his Young Lions concert series as well as his weekly jam session, Motch suggested combining the two at Panama 66, bringing the jam session into the auditorium.

“It’s really worked out well for both of us,” Motch says. “Once we hooked up with Gilbert it really legitimized us as a music venue. I can afford to feature music because the establishment is really successful. I have people in here from open to close every day. Music is the icing on the cake, and it just took us to the next level.”

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