AFTER DARK: Sophisticated lady returns to Newport
I expect a lot from a lounge performer. I expect some singing. I expect some jokes. And, of course, I expect a comprehensive critique of my dinner.
Being such a demanding guy, I naturally found myself on a dark and stormy Friday night at 21 Oceanfront in Newport Beach, where saloon singer Judy Chamberlain and her revolving gang of top-flight jazzmen have created one of the coolest bar scenes in Orange County.
The restaurant, owned by Rick and Jeannie Lawrence, is in the historic McFadden Building overlooking Newport Pier. The structure has been around in restaurant form for 21 years, in such guises as Alley West, the Ritz and Rex.
But I am enjoying this latest incarnation best of all because it is more than just good food. It has brought a sophisticated nightlife scene to an area best known for beer-swilling, cheap pizza and Hooters.
I credit Chamberlain for a lot of that. Since she arrived for her Friday-night gigs, the place has jumped and jived a few notches on the excitement meter.
If her name sounds familiar, you have good taste. Or at least you like to taste good food. She is the former restaurant critic for the Newport Ensign, Daily Pilot and radio station K-Ocean. You might even have seen her on OCN.
Judy started singing with a big band when she was just a teen, but then, in her own words, “discovered making money.” She searched for a day job that might actually pay the bills and eventually started her own employment agency.
When she and her husband moved to New Orleans, she got a little bored and started writing restaurant reviews for small publications “just to amuse myself. ”
After 12 years of more serious reviewing in the Newport Beach area, she took a good, hard look at her life and decided a couple of years ago to rediscover her love of music.
“I really felt my kind of music was starting to come around again, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.
Her favorite music leans toward Insane Clown Posse, Prodigy and Motley Crue. Just kidding. She’s definitely a Cole Porter and George Gershwin type of woman, although her repertoire encompasses many current tunes and pop standards.
I was impressed — no, make that stunned — that she knew “St. James Infirmary,” an old blues song that only a handful of performers would dare to sing in front of an audience. But Judy will try anything once.