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Lestat’s West in Normal Heights announces permanent closure

Nina Francis performs at Lestat's
May 01, 2016 San Diego, CA | Nina Francis performs at Lestat’s during Adams Avenue Unplugged which featured 22 stages and 150 performances over the weekend along a two-mile stretch of Adams Avenue, including University Heights Normal Heights, the Kensington area. The event touted 150 live musical performances staged inside restaurants, bars, coffee houses and galleries lining the neighborhood. (Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)
(Nancee E. Lewis / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Beloved by San Diego musicians, the all-ages music venue adjoined to Lestat’s Coffee House operated for nearly two decades

Shaped like a shoebox, the small room on Adams Avenue was a modest venue. Old photos and posters covered the walls; fold-out metal chairs lined the floor for the audience. . Usually a dog could be spotted roaming about or sleeping at the entrance.

But to its devoted regulars, Lestat’s West was something magical. Singer-songwriters describe it as an “almost church-like atmosphere, without the stuffiness” that served as a sanctuary for San Diego artists. Some nights were reminiscent of Laurel Canyon or a small-capacity Coachella, the audience filled with musicians who often jumped on stage to join their friends’ set.

“It was a true listening venue — no one was eating while you were playing,” singer-songwriter and Lestat’s West veteran Anya Marina says. “Everybody in there was sitting, hanging on every word.”

“There was something so homey about that place,” adds Molly Jenson, a singer-songwriter who played the venue frequently, often with Marina. “There really was a community there.”

Now, that home to many has confirmed its doors will shut, permanently.

Like most San Diego venues, the Normal Heights concert space was forced to temporarily shutter in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But with some health and safety restrictions lifting June 15, many of these spots have announced plans to open back up. Lestat’s West just won’t be one of them.

Louis Brazier, the booking manager and soundman of Lestat’s West, shared the news May 26 on his Facebook page. (Brazier did not respond to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s request for comment.)

“With a sad and heavy heart I have to inform everyone the (v)enue Lestat’s West has been closed,” Brazier’s post said in part. “This past year has been costly and taxing for the owners. So the powers that be informed me they can’t afford to continue on.”

San Diegans, both past and present, flooded the comment section of the post to express their sorrow and gratitude. Many offered up their favorite memories and live shows; others shared stories of meeting best friends, bandmates and romantic partners through Lestat’s West.

The Normal Heights venue’s story starts in 1997, when John Husler opened his first Lestat’s Coffee House. After a few years of hosting small live shows and events inside the cafe, Husler decided to open up a space dedicated to events directly next door: Lestat’s West.

For almost two decades, Lestat’s West served as home base for many San Diego musicians. Weekly music and comedy open mic nights fostered a welcoming environment for new artists to get their footing, and its intimate feel attracted some of the top talent in the region, from Jason Mraz to Greg Laswell to Gregory Page.

Page was one of the first musicians at Lestat’s West; the folk singer-songwriter actually began performing at the cafe before the music venue even opened. (He later became the namesake of the venue’s performing space, renamed The Gregory Page Stage and dedicated to him during a surprise benefit concert.)

Gregory Page performs at Lestat's West.
(Dennis Andersen)

Page, who still lives in San Diego, notes that the venue’s diversity is likely what made it “a coveted diamond in our city.” While many other local venues focused on one thing — be it rock, acoustic or comedy — Lestat’s West “checked so many different boxes on who and how (they) could play there.”

“Louis (Brazier) had a bipolar rolodex of different kinds of acts that he would pull in at any time,” Page continues. “And maybe they don’t always make sense in the flow of things, but somehow it always works.”

In addition to the eclectic roster, the high sound quality was highly praised among its performers and audience members. Brazier, often described as an audiophile, recorded many of the shows and gave those recordings to the performers for free — a generous gift for any artist, especially musicians who were just starting out and hearing themselves on a real sound system for the first time.

“Louis Brazier was really the heart and soul of Lestat’s,” Marina says.

Brazier was known for taking a chance on up-and-comers, and bringing in artists at all stages of their career. He created a network of regular performers that played on a monthly basis, and gave these musicians the liberties to organize the night however they wanted, regardless of how big of a crowd they drew.

“It felt like everyone was on the same level,” Jenson says.

The all-ages venue was a place where everyone was welcome, and where everyone was made to feel special — especially on nights when their name was lit up on the marquee. Musicians often hung out on nights they weren’t gigging to watch friends, perhaps join in on a song or two. Folks would sign the green room’s walls backstage, and after-show visits to an Irish pub The Ould Sod down the street were frequent.

“There was just this family feel to it — if you had a friend who was playing you could come by, and if you couldn’t afford to buy a ticket, you could come from the back and watch,” Jenson says.

However, the venue’s business model wasn’t always financially sustainable — and this isn’t the first time the community anticipated the end of concerts at Lestat’s West. Three years ago, Husler said that the venue would shift from live music to community events, attributing the decision to growing costs and shrinking audiences.

In response to the news, Jenson organized “The Last Show Probably, Maybe” in April 2018, bringing together a slew of artists and bands who had performed on The Gregory Page Stage throughout the years. All proceeds of the event went to Brazier.

Though that event was predicted to probably be the venue’s last concert, “maybe” prevailed. Husler said that a public outcry from musicians — largely stemming from a Facebook post that garnered a lot of attention online — resulted in abandoning the programming shift. Instead, Lestat’s West continued operations as usual, but also continued to lose money.

Once COVID-19 temporarily shut the venue’s doors in March 2020, a comeback for Lestat’s West seemed unlikely; as the pandemic dragged on, the future of Lestat’s Coffee Houses was also threatened. Husler, who was forced to sell his home to secure capital for the three cafes in Normal Heights, University Heights and Hillcrest, realized he could no longer continue to operate Lestat’s West at a loss.

Moving forward, the space that housed Lestat’s West will now serve as general seating for the Normal Heights cafe. While Husler said he has no plans to bring Lestat’s West back, he would like to host small concerts and events inside the cafe once the business is back on its feet.

“It’s a real shame when any all-age, cultural venue shuts in our city, but I think what really rubs salt in the wound ... is we’re not getting replacement venues here,” Page says. “We’re getting more breweries, different restaurants — we’re not replacing them with other music venues. Now we’re left without an all-age folk/music/poetry/comedy club where people can hone and establish their art in.”

“It’s a bummer because I doubt anything like that will happen again,” Marina adds.

While a Lestat’s West replica is unlikely, Page hopes its closure can serve as a catalyst for local artists and bands to be creative and find a way to fill the void.

“I really hope that some of us can pull together and open up venues to come because that’s what makes our community so great, the diversity of it ... I do feel like there’s a beautiful opportunity for people to step up,” Page says.

“We’ll see what happens — to be continued, I guess.”


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