It's just about last call for Fishlips, the downtown Bakersfield restaurant and watering hole that, over the last decade, has become a mecca for performers in search of a stage and fans who love live music, reasonably priced drinks and gourmet burgers named after rock stars. The bar's last day is Dec. 11.
The 7,400-square-foot building has been sold to the owners of RiverWalk Cafe, who plan to erect a wall down the middle, opening an "upscale bar" on one side and a miniature replica of the Stockdale Highway deli on the other, according to Jon Whitener, the restaurant's general manager. The partners who own Fishlips were notified Wednesday they had 30 days to vacate the premises.
"I'm disappointed, absolutely," Fishlips co-owner Shawna Haddad-Byers said Saturday. "We knew he wanted to sell the building to do other things. I understand that. I'm a capitalist. My thing was the timing of it. I wish it could have been done after the first of the year."
The building was owned by Kipp Sullivan, who opened Fishlips with Haddad-Byers in 2000 as a seafood restaurant inside the pre-gentrified Padre Hotel. In 2003 he became the sole owner when he moved Fishlips to its current site, at 1517 18th St. Sullivan sold the business to Haddad-Byers and Andrew Wilkins in 2007, though he still owned the building.
"I mean, obviously, the only better room for sound and shows is the Crystal Palace in this town, so it's a shame," Sullivan said. "They had the first right of refusal to buy the building before anyone else. They had the option to take care of business and they didn't."
Though she considered it, Haddad-Byers decided against making an offer on the building, saying it needed too much structural work and that the plumbing and electrical wiring were out of date. She had hoped she and Wilkins would be able to continue leasing the space when the building changed hands, but she conceded there was no guarantee of that.
Though downtown lunch and dinner crowds will miss the burgers and fish tacos, the biggest casualty of the bar's imminent closure undoubtedly will be Bakersfield's music scene. Co-owner Wilkins books 15 to 20 acts a month, a roster of live entertainment unrivaled by most venues in the city.
"That place has been a staple of the live scene for a while," said Chris Taylor, guitarist and vocalist for Bakersfield reggae band Dub Seeds. "I remember we couldn't wait to get a chance to play at Fishlips. Where else could you have rock, hip-hop, Latin, reggae and country on any given night? It's going to leave a big void."
Jeremy Gustafson, guitarist for Bakersfield metal tribute band Glam Cobra, was disappointed though not surprised by the news, since "For Sale" signs had been posted on the property for some time.
"Personally, it's a heartbreaker that it happened. I would say it's the premier local music venue, and there's not a lot of places that would step up to the challenge like them."
In addition to offering gigs to local bands, Fishlips regularly booked an eclectic assortment of touring acts, hosting everyone from country legend Merle Haggard, to hiphop performers to midget wrestlers.
"There were so many bands in the country that never got a chance to play Bakersfield because it was that weird kind of market," Wilkins said. "We've had eight Grammy winners play here, a very diverse crowd. So many places get pigeonholed. We didn't go against the grain, but things that didn't work at other places seemed to work here."
Haddad-Byers echoed her partner, saying Fishlips "always had its own life force. We tell people who come work here, 'You know Thousand Island from Ranch, that's great. But whatever else you know, do not apply it here. It does not work.' The music was the magic, and it just morphed into its own life."
Though neither partner plans to resurrect the Fishlips brand or business model in the near future, Haddad-Byers has a couple of irons in the fire: She recently started a website, crashapparel.com, which sells fashion accessories and eventually will carry clothing, and she's busy renovating an 1,800-square-foot space in Wall Street Alley that will house her new restaurant, called Muertos. She hopes to open in mid-January and plans to bring most if not all of her 10 Fishlips employees with her to the new ventures.
"I want a place where people can go and talk and have some drinks and relax," said Haddad-Byers, who hopes to offer music, albeit on a much smaller scale than the shows at Fishlips. "I'm 47. How much longer can I throw people off the stage?"
As for a final hurrah, there are plans in the works. After all, this is a bar, not just a business.
"I don't want to make it sound like a funeral," Wilkins said. "If someone told you you have 30 days to live, do you sit around and mope or celebrate life and go out with a bang? And that's what we're trying to do."
But most customers aren't in a festive mood just yet, Haddad-Byers said.
"I've had people crying, and I'm throwing men in there too," she said.
"It's sad that Fishlips is ending, but it's ending profitable, it's ending fun, it's ending with phenomenal bands, it's ending with great people, it's ending with signed guitars on the wall. It's ending well. It's just the course of life."
-- Californian staff writer Matt Munoz contributed to this report