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Hands Off The XO

The piano bar is a rare art form these days. There are still several places of note in our fine city where you can find this urban delicacy. I will try to do a series of reviews over the next few weeks targeting these beautiful send backs to a bygone era. The first one I will bring up has a history of over thirty years with the last seven being of the fondest note.

A casual chance encounter with good friends can always brighten your mood, but add to that the wonderful sounds of a live piano man and good cheap cocktails, and you have the Imperial House Lounge. Adjacent to the continental, refined and old-school dining room, the lounge is an attractive den filled with relics of spanish chivalry. The walls are hung with shields, swords and armor. The room is dark and there are 6 highbacked booths so you can have a private moment for two, or share something less secret with four of your closest friends. There is also plenty of bar and lounge table seating.

Iron worked chandeliers hang from the ceiling allowing you the feeling of being in a medieval castle. The most impressive of which is in the back room. A huge metal construct offering nearly twenty or so lowlit bulbs. Red table cloths and burgundy upholstery give the room a sultry vibe. The bartenders have been here for as long as I can remember. Dave even bought a bottle of Remy XO Cognac for me once, after many requests for good brandy, and it is still there to this day, a bit emptier with every visit. They offer an assortment of wines by the glass that are affordable; Beringer Pinot Noir $7, Blackstone Merlot $8.

This is also the home of Mystery Cafe, where you can dine and solve a muder at the same time. Put that in your pipe, Sherlock. You can see the crowds mill out of the back rooms on weekends after seemingly good sport. If you look upwards before you enter, there is an apartment complex above that is owned by the same people and shrouded in rumor and mystery. A friend of mine who used to live there said her place was definitely haunted.

The real reason we are here, though, is affirmed by the voice that comes floating down the entry way singing “Cinnamon Girl”. This is the venerable, Rick Lyon. He has been performing here for seven years on every Friday and Saturday night. He plays everything from old jazz standards to more recent and popular rock songs. Sitting atop a baby grand piano is perched his fantastical keyboard. Somehow this contraption enables him to play all these songs with full back up that he has purportedly recorded himself. Via the mirror that hangs over his back, you can see his fingers fly over the plastic keys with dexterity. Next, he comes in with a smoky version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and some people start over to the dance flloor to sway and shimmy a bit.

There is a picture of Rick Lyon that is attached to the wall next to the beautiful wooden wine racks. Rumor has it that this is the fourth or fifith picture he has had here. Apparently, the others were lifted by Lyon afficionados to place on their mantels at home. So the current photo has been industrially adhered or bolted to the wall to ward off would be idolizers.

I found out for the first time on thsi trip that they offer late night bar food until midnight, so we opted to give it a shot. We chose, from the typical bar apps, the potato skins. These were pretty good, not overly greasy like their brothers at other bars. It was obvious that the bacon on top was a bacon substitute like Bacos or something, but the ranch dip complemented it all making it a decent late night snack. One thing I have never been able to understand is why outside I can get a strong cellphone signal and inside it’s as if i have enetered a no go zone. This makes it a bit hard to keep in touch, via text, with your comrades at arms, yet it’s nice not to see a bunch of people chatting on their cellphones all night which would distract from the good tunes.

The crowd here is always diverse; scenesters mix with college kids and 30 something professionals. Then, when Rick comes in with John Lennon’s “Don’t Let Me Down”, all these different folk practically gather arms around shoulders and join in uproariously on the choruses. Our cocktail waitress was polite and even funny as she served us our concoctions. It is easy to see why one might come here to escape the club scene or the wine bar circuit. I am gald that it is off the beaten path and on a side street, so that the general public still might not find this vestige and tarnish the diamond that it is.

Come have a drink and join in on some favorite tunes some night. Rick takes requests and his music caresses the candle lit tables with a gentleness that makes this the perfect spot for a gathering of good friends or a good spot to dance to something other than hip hop and house. But don’t you dare touch my bottle of cognac, unless I’m there and you’re buying. Don’t let it be said i’m not good at sharing.


Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619 234-3525
  • Performance: Rick Lyon
  • Name: Imperial House lounge
  • Address: 505 Kalmia Street