The Continental Room, originally opened in 1925, is the oldest drinking establishment in the city. It’s taken on many forms in the past few decades, but it was initially known as J.L. Leon’s Billiards, a Prohibition-era pool hall that also served as a speakeasy.Fast-forward more than 70 years, to 1999, when budding entrepreneur Sean Francis (co -owner of the Slidebar) was cruisin’ the streets of Fullerton on his Vespa. Looking for a cool place to launch a bar in Fullerton, he stumbled upon the rundown building.”I saw the door open in an industrial area and I walk in, and lo and behold it used to be a bar,” he says. “The old guy who used to run it was in there. We negotiated a lease over a 12 -pack of beer and I got the place.”
Francis and his then-business-partner Carlo Terranova completely gutted the venue during reconstruction – and that’s when Francis started to uncover some history. “When we were tearing the place up, there’s an office in the back, and I found old whiskey bottles with the corks still in them.”
It took Francis and Terranova two years to complete the Continental Room’s renovations; the duo decided on a décor that would reflect what the bar would have looked like in the ’60s. In keeping with that theme, Francis purchased and cleaned up old booths and tables from Little Joe’s, a popular Italian restaurant on Broadway near Dodger Stadium that also opened in the ’20s, though the restaurant closed its doors in 1998.According to Francis, one booth in particular has an interesting history. “The booth we have in the VIP room now used to be Tommy Lasorda’s personal booth at the restaurant. He would go to Little Joe’s after every home Dodger game and sit in that particular booth.”
The refurbished Continental Room opened its doors in 2002 and quickly became known for serving specialty martinis like the 714 and key lime and mango varieties – and for never having a cover charge. Just because it’s free, however, doesn’t mean they skimp on the entertainment. Instead of a traditional house band, talent buyer Bobby McLachlan mixes it up by bringing in artists whose styles range from funk to electronica.
“Southern California is rich with many genre-based scenes,” he says, “and I try to tap into unique, vintage-sounding, raw funk and soul bands, rocksteady ska combos, post-punk/indie bands, hip-hop producers and collectives, rockabilly/jump blues groups, salsa, Brazilian and world music. I’m interested in something I’ve never heard before or anything bridging gaps from one style of music to the next.”
Some of the hotspot’s biggest shows have been appearances by Cut Chemist, DJ Nu-Mark from Jurassic 5, Peanut Butter Wolf and Rocco DeLucca & the Burden. There’s music pouring out of the joint nightly starting around 9 p.m., and unlike bookers at other establishments surrounding the venue that also offer live entertainment, the Continental Room’s staff is as adamant about the quality of the music as they are the quality of drinks.”Music is the top priority,” McLachlan says. “We showcase forgotten music that is timeless and makes you say to yourself, ‘My dad loves this song.’ Most venues don’t realize that you are what you listen to. They don’t want to take chances on music, or don’t have the money to spend on a 10 -piece band. Bartenders (here) know your name and poison before you even get to the bar.
“Yeah, the carpet smells sometimes. But at least there are no peanut shells on the floor and dueling pianos.”
The venue has quickly become a local favorite where friends meet up for drinks and to check out a new DJ or band.
“It’s a total fun place where it’s super mellow. You don’t have to deal with a bunch of attitude and you meet all kinds of people in there,” says Efrem Schulz, Fullerton resident, frontman for Death by Stereo and a regular DJ at the venue. “It’s not a college frat bar. It’s more of a place for like-minded individuals who want something different. Just the look alone of the bar – it’s awesome.”
To really capture that ’60s lounge feel, the Continental Room features an Elvis night every Wednesday featuring impersonator Kirk Wall covering classic Presley tunes.”It totally fits the place, that style of music,” Francis says. “You can’t have this crazy rock band at the Continental. It’s a dimly lit lounge – of course you’d have an Elvis impersonator.”
Francis and partner Greg Rizio are currently putting the finishing touches on yet another renovation to the venue that will increase the 160-person capacity to 230. They’re adding a patio and two back rooms, including a space called the Lion’s Den that can be rented out for parties of up to 25. The room features booth seating, TV screens so patrons can still see and hear entertainment in the main room, and the rental will include bartender service.