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The Shamrock: Costa Mesa’s First Cocktail Bar

Costa Mesa’s first cocktail bar opened at 1824 Newport in August 1944. The bar, first called the Shamrock and later the Helm, survived nearly seven decades before closing in August 2011.

The Shamrock’s story nearly ended before it began. Protests were held, editorials written, and petitions circulated to block its opening. Foes argued “the town already has a sufficient number of liquor-selling establishments to adequately supply the needs of the citizenry.” A. L. Pinkley opposed its nearness to his child-friendly drug store. And W. Carl Spencer worried about “drunken military brawls” that would lead to “Costa Mesa being declared ‘out-of-bounds’ for the decent and respectable soldiers at the base.”

After several months of hearings the Board of Equalization finally approved the liquor license. Opponents’ fears appear to have been unfounded. No drunken brawls, at least, were ever recorded.

The new owners added $5,000 worth of improvements, including a glass-back bar, “soft carpeting,” and booths “for the convenience of patrons.” “The smartest new café” promised “food that will please the most discriminating and the finest mixed drinks.”

The Shamrock soon expanded, adding a dining room in the former Fairview Water Co.’s space. Later the Mesa Liquor Co. became Shamrock Liquor. “Plenty of Whiskey,” it advertised.

The Shamrock was located near the Alpha Beta market at the former home of the Gingham Café. In the 1920s, the location had been the site of Rehme’s Garage and the Mesa Tavern.

The lounge specialized in its early years in deluxe steak and chicken dinners. Holidays were a big deal, too. You could enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey dinner for $1.50 or party “from morning till night” on St. Patrick’s Day. By 1954, live music became a fixture when “One Man Trio” Bob Noble played 6 nights a week.
Owners came and went over time, and its footprint shrank and grew. In the 1980s the bar was renamed the Helm.

The bar closed in 2011 after 67 years. The landlord, Robert “Zeb” Ziemer, was forced to raise the rent, he claimed, after being sued for an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ziemer’s lawyer called the lawsuit the work of a “professional plaintiff” as the man had simultaneously sued four other historic bars for similar infractions occurring the same day. The case was dismissed in December without a settlement, but the result came too late for Costa Mesa’s oldest cocktail bar.
The building today still carries on the Shamrock’s tradition. It is home to The Boulevard, a retro cocktail lounge.

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