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Gonzo Report: Westgate bar is sonically sweet, inspired by Versailles

Jazz palace lobby is called "Grand" with good reason

The Westgate: a big hotel with a small but swell bar.
The Westgate: a big hotel with a small but swell bar.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the Westgate Hotel, which takes up the bulk of a downtown city block at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue. Opened in 1970, the golden-domed 20-story high-rise building was built and decorated to evoke France’s legendarily ornate Palace of Versailles. And if you’re as flush with cash as Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette were, you can pull your car right up to the front of the Westgate, and a well-dressed valet will greet you, take your keys, and guide your vehicle into the cavernous underground parking structure. Another attentive valet will rush to save you the trouble of opening the ten-foot glass doors that lead into the opulent Grand Lobby by yourself.

Place

Westgate Hotel

1055 Second Avenue, San Diego

They don’t call it “grand” for nothing. The lobby is big enough to kick a field goal in, but graciously appointed (with plush blue velour corsair sofas and chairs); a dozen intimate conversations could be held without anyone hearing what another group was saying. Right in front of the winding staircase sits a gorgeous nine-foot grand piano with ornate carved wooden legs. (The instrument might be mostly for show. I’ve been to the hotel dozens of times, but have never seen or heard anyone playing it.)

As a music writer living on a music writer’s pay, my visits have come from those gilded opportunities when I was a “plus-one,” accompanying the few friends I have who wield so-called “discretionary income.” It’s a concept I understand, but mostly in theory. So, on June 11, I knew I wouldn’t be tipping the Westgate valet. I was, however, lucky enough to hitch a ride with a doggedly resourceful musician pal of mine, who pulled off the almost impossible feat of commandeering a parking spot within the coveted yellow zone, even though it was after 6 pm, situated directly across the street from the Westgate entrance. That was an auspicious beginning to a stellar night of world class jazz, and one that fell just within an underemployed music writer’s budget. (There’s no cover charge at the Westgate Hotel’s Plaza Bar, although they do have a $25 food and drink minimum.)

Once inside, we navigated our way to the relatively tiny — but still opulent — Plaza Bar. It seats around 40 patrons, and we arrived before most of the band, with the exception of long-time San Diego drummer Jim Plank, who was setting up a super-condensed version of his normally sprawling kit. Getting there early means the best possible sonic and visual experience, and it’s worth the effort: The Plaza Bar has earned its reputation as one of the best listening rooms in the county. The ceilings are at least 16 feet high (possibly 20, I didn’t bring my tape measure). A brown leather bench runs the length of the room’s perimeter, and the French fanciness includes Louis XV chairs at each of the decently spaced tables. There’s a baby grand piano at one end of the room, provided to the venue by local flute virtuoso Holly Hofmann, who happened to be playing when I visited — which meant her husband Mike Wofford was manning the keys. Bassist Rob Thorsen completed the quartet.

Wall mounted candelabras provided soft lighting, and a massive chandelier hung front and center. Almost everyone was there to hear the music. I have, however, seen the occasional guest wander in with nothing more than alcohol consumption on the agenda. (It is a hotel bar, after all.) This has led to some uncomfortably tension-filled moments, like the time a wobbly woman in a red dress tripped over the bass player’s $10,000 instrument. Thankfully, her compatriots were able to lead her (albeit along a circuitous, stumbling path) out of the room before any further damage was done, either to herself, her red dress, her self-respect, or to the most important tool of someone’s musical trade.

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The Westgate: a big hotel with a small but swell bar.
The Westgate: a big hotel with a small but swell bar.

It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the Westgate Hotel, which takes up the bulk of a downtown city block at the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue. Opened in 1970, the golden-domed 20-story high-rise building was built and decorated to evoke France’s legendarily ornate Palace of Versailles. And if you’re as flush with cash as Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette were, you can pull your car right up to the front of the Westgate, and a well-dressed valet will greet you, take your keys, and guide your vehicle into the cavernous underground parking structure. Another attentive valet will rush to save you the trouble of opening the ten-foot glass doors that lead into the opulent Grand Lobby by yourself.

Place

Westgate Hotel

1055 Second Avenue, San Diego

They don’t call it “grand” for nothing. The lobby is big enough to kick a field goal in, but graciously appointed (with plush blue velour corsair sofas and chairs); a dozen intimate conversations could be held without anyone hearing what another group was saying. Right in front of the winding staircase sits a gorgeous nine-foot grand piano with ornate carved wooden legs. (The instrument might be mostly for show. I’ve been to the hotel dozens of times, but have never seen or heard anyone playing it.)

As a music writer living on a music writer’s pay, my visits have come from those gilded opportunities when I was a “plus-one,” accompanying the few friends I have who wield so-called “discretionary income.” It’s a concept I understand, but mostly in theory. So, on June 11, I knew I wouldn’t be tipping the Westgate valet. I was, however, lucky enough to hitch a ride with a doggedly resourceful musician pal of mine, who pulled off the almost impossible feat of commandeering a parking spot within the coveted yellow zone, even though it was after 6 pm, situated directly across the street from the Westgate entrance. That was an auspicious beginning to a stellar night of world class jazz, and one that fell just within an underemployed music writer’s budget. (There’s no cover charge at the Westgate Hotel’s Plaza Bar, although they do have a $25 food and drink minimum.)

Once inside, we navigated our way to the relatively tiny — but still opulent — Plaza Bar. It seats around 40 patrons, and we arrived before most of the band, with the exception of long-time San Diego drummer Jim Plank, who was setting up a super-condensed version of his normally sprawling kit. Getting there early means the best possible sonic and visual experience, and it’s worth the effort: The Plaza Bar has earned its reputation as one of the best listening rooms in the county. The ceilings are at least 16 feet high (possibly 20, I didn’t bring my tape measure). A brown leather bench runs the length of the room’s perimeter, and the French fanciness includes Louis XV chairs at each of the decently spaced tables. There’s a baby grand piano at one end of the room, provided to the venue by local flute virtuoso Holly Hofmann, who happened to be playing when I visited — which meant her husband Mike Wofford was manning the keys. Bassist Rob Thorsen completed the quartet.

Wall mounted candelabras provided soft lighting, and a massive chandelier hung front and center. Almost everyone was there to hear the music. I have, however, seen the occasional guest wander in with nothing more than alcohol consumption on the agenda. (It is a hotel bar, after all.) This has led to some uncomfortably tension-filled moments, like the time a wobbly woman in a red dress tripped over the bass player’s $10,000 instrument. Thankfully, her compatriots were able to lead her (albeit along a circuitous, stumbling path) out of the room before any further damage was done, either to herself, her red dress, her self-respect, or to the most important tool of someone’s musical trade.

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