Dave Evans On The End Of Luna Live & The Expansion Of Luna Bar and Grill
Story By Justin Morris
Photos of Dave Evans by Chris Brennan
I met Dave Evans sometime in late 2004 or early 2005. I’d heard of him. I had lots of musician friends in those days, some of whom had played music with him and others who frequented or headlined in his first venue, Dave’s Pub, located then in the now-vacant building sitting at the northern intersection of Ryan and 18th Streets.
I was a year or so late to the scene, having run off to the other side of the Sabine right after high school, but I knew of the place and its stories as if I had been there.
It was the place of its time for the indie rock scene of Lake Charles. Punk and metal and rock and roll — it happened there, if nowhere else, and, as any punk rock fairy tale would eventually have it, the young businessman found himself in a him versus “the man” situation, and eventually shuttered the place up, much to the closing night patrons’ dismay.
Evans wasn’t deterred, however. In fact, he found a different location and a different business model and, in October of 2004, opened Luna Bar and Grill in its original location on Prewitt St. (now The Kitchen).
Back then, the menu featured a great many of the ever-tasty menu items served at Luna today, and brought a good bit of the Dave’s Pub vibe, serving up home-grown, independent music alongside his stellar-themed sandwiches and entrees. The place was much talked about, even in its earliest days, and it was a welcome home to many newcomers and many fans of Dave’s Pub in days gone by.
Yet, the universe holding all in sway, as it is known to do, Hurricane Rita struck Southwest Louisiana, and did enough damage to the building that Dave packed up and headed north.
By north, I mean a mile or so, at best, to where you’ll find Luna Bar and Grill today, at its 719 Ryan St. location, where it has remained since 2005, and where I find myself sitting having a sandwich and a beer this afternoon.
It looks a bit different now than it did when it was Barolo’s Italian Restaurant, where I worked, both in the kitchen and front-of-house, in what now seems like a lifetime ago.
In fact, it doesn’t even look like it did when it first became Luna, having had a major interior remodel several years ago in which Dave held true to form, in that he kept the vaulted interior brick walls and the plethora of music-themed art, paintings and gig posters that covered them. He did shorten the bar and move it to the back to make way for more tables as the popularity of the restaurant grew.
By this point, Dave had acquired the vacant alley next to the restaurant and turned it into the Luna patio that I’m certain most of you reading this have visited at one time or another.
The patio provided a new possibility. While Dave was continuing to feature small acts inside the restaurant, the patio gave him room to build a stage that could host much larger acts — acts that might be a bit much for your dinner crowd.
So, eventually, Luna’s late nights and weekends started welcoming a bigger and more significant share of the Lake Charles music scene. And it started bringing in some acts that the town had never seen before, and did so during an important time for downtown Lake Charles.
Longstanding anchor Breezy’s shuttered up weeks after Rita, and by that time even the original Rikenjaks had changed ownership, and ceased to be the bastion of original local and regional music that it and Breezy’s once were.
This left a vacuum that Dave welcomed the opportunity to try to fill.
While continuing to be a strong music and culinary force on the scene, Dave watched other properties come and go. Breezy’s became 710, which became A.J’s; Rikenjaks became Happy Hippie Pizza, which became Sylvia’s, which became Dharma, which became Pint House Pizzeria, which became Sloppy’s Downtown…
And Dave has remained all the while.
He eventually jumped into a bit of that fray, when he expanded his operation across the street to the 710 Ryan address. This place would become Luna Live by the end of 2011, and it has featured everything from scores of local acts to regional acts like Tab Benoit, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and George Porter, Jr., to the likes of Tim Reynolds (known for his extensive work with Dave Matthews), Brent Hinds of Mastadon with his side project Fiend Without a Face, and the one and only Reverend Horton Heat.
Luna Live has easily been the best known and most active venue the downtown scene has ever known.
And by March, it will be no more.
This is precisely what has brought me here today, staring at a grilled chicken sandwich, crispy fries and a pint of IPA as I try to figure out “what happened?” I think deeply on the answer and stare as if I expected this sandwich, the Fires of Pluto, to tell me why we as a music community have found ourselves at this point, and to clarify which, if any, of the rumors are true.
I thought I saw the top of the jalapeno cheese sourdough bun lift slightly, as if it were finally about to give me all the answers I’d been looking for. But, just before it spoke, a hand clamped down on my left shoulder from behind. It was Dave. Probably best to get the answers from him instead of the sandwich.
I grabbed my beer, and Dave and I repaired to the patio, away from the clamor of the piped music and the remaining late lunchers. We enjoyed a breeze that was quite perfect, despite our recent wintry spell.
Justin: Okay, Dave. I still haven’t seen anything officially announced, but the chatter seems to be that Luna Live is shuttering up. The fact that we’re sitting here having this chat confirms it. I want to start at the beginning. Luna was going well, and you were already doing music. Why did you want Luna Live?
Dave: I wanted a bigger venue. I wanted to host bigger shows and try to turn Lake Charles on, musically, and in bigger realms, just like I have always wanted to do, going back to the pub … and it worked. It still works, you know. But I came to learn that its biggest asset was the kitchen, certainly as a guy who owns a restaurant, a busy one at that, and one that requires a ton of prep every day, and the storage space that a lot of these downtown buildings don’t offer. About a year or two in, we turned the Luna Live kitchen into a real working space, and it’s been our commissary kitchen ever since, and quickly became the most important part of the facility.
Luna Bar and Grill is the beast … the monster that we try to contain. Luna Live is just a segment of it, while having much more overhead. It’s a much larger building with a much larger utility bill, and it only makes a third or a quarter of the money.
Justin: And you just reinvested over there not long ago with the big tap wall. That had to be considerable.
Dave: Oh yeah, it was $25,000. And I’ve been running a venue for this long because I want it, and I didn’t want to give in. I didn’t want to throw in the towel. I never dreamed of opening up something and not running it … But in early December, I had an epiphany. I’ve been doing this for 14 years now, and Luna Bar and Grill is alive and well, and this past year was one of my hardest years ever, and I’ve been trying to find out why. The restaurant is as busy as it’s ever been, and we’ve even been running all of our to-go and Waitr business out of Live, which was a beautiful thing, but here’s the kicker …
This past August, my landlord of the bar and grill came to me and told me that they were getting out of the building. The Downtown Properties office is immediately next door to (Luna) Bar and Grill, and the suite next to it is part of the building, as well, and since I had been asking to buy it for 10-plus years, they wanted to know if I wanted it. Dude, I’d been asking for years; of course I wanted it, man. This is my chance, I’ve got to take it. I get to grow my restaurant? Oh, my gosh … This is something that I never thought would happen, honestly.
And we started working on the plans, and had intended to keep Live, originally, but after talking with some plumbers and contractors, and talking not only dollar figures but, you know, wise decisions … As cool as this place is, and hardcore as it runs, there’s been a gangload of mistakes over the years.
This is the product of lots and lots of mess-ups, as well as the care and the concern of getting up every day and getting your hands dirty. And I’ve done all that because I wanted it, not just for me but for Lake Charles. Because I’m here and I know what it’s like to want to have places like this to go to. You’ve got to have cultural center bases around town, and I’ve tried to be that. I was being a good restaurant guy, and I was being a good venue guy, but what I wasn’t doing was being a smart business guy.
That was the epiphany. I was taking it on the chin as long as it was “making its own way,” but if it’s not making you anything, then eventually it becomes the enemy. It becomes this gigantic thing that I’ve got to take care of, and it takes a gigantic amount of money, and if you’re not making, you’re not gaining.
Justin: It almost becomes a bit of an indulgence at that point, doesn’t it? Certainly, if those efforts could be put toward expanding the restaurant or, say, branching out to other markets?
Dave: That’s exactly what we’re looking to do. Now that I have the bar and grill expansion, I didn’t need that kitchen anymore. I could renovate and expand my existing kitchen to where it can absorb all that capacity. Not to mention the changes in the venue scene. These days, you have Golden Nugget or L’Auberge bringing in national touring acts. Stuff like Styx. I’m even going “Man, I wanna go see that!” Then you have the rest of the bar scene, and everyone trying to come up with the same type of stuff to do every night. Folks just don’t go out like they used to. It’s just not the party time it used to be. So if you’re doing the same thing someone else is, you’re just splitting the crowd, and then every bar has a bad night.
So, I have the opportunity to expand my restaurant, which I’ve always wanted to do. I want to be able to open up other Lunas in other markets, because Luna has become a force. We get customers from Baton Rouge and from Houston on a weekly basis. That’s amazing to me. Folks drive two and a half hours to come eat dinner, hang out and drive back home. That blows my mind. That completely baffles me. Seriously, to try to imagine folks driving from Houston to Lake Charles to eat somewhere? Granted, I do think we have much better food here in Louisiana than in Texas, but that’s just my opinion. But … you’re in Houston! You’ve got, like, 8 million restaurants in Houston, and you’re driving all the way to Lake Charles to eat at my little restaurant? That is the most amazing stuff, and I recognize that and need to nurture that.
So, after a lot of deliberation and discussion with my wife, who is my only business partner, and getting the thoughts and opinions of our friends and colleagues, we just decided that it just makes sense from a business standpoint.
We won’t stop doing music. We’ll never stop doing music. We can go back to doing old school shows on the patio and, now that we’re expanding the restaurant, we’ll have more interior space to do some stuff in there, too. We’re not going to cut into dinner, but we’re going to put on shows from 10 pm-midnight outside on the patio like we used to. I’m going to leave the big shows to the big guys. They’ve got the money; I don’t, and it’s all on me to pay those artists, no matter what. You know exactly what I’m talking about because you’ve done it!
Justin: Yeah, but I had corporate money behind me. All of this has always fallen on just you.
Dave: Exactly. Say I was paying thousands of dollars for someone like, say, Tab Benoit. If that show only brought in half that much, the rest is on me. Any show is its own gamble.
Justin: So, on the expansion, then? You’re getting the whole building?
Dave: Yeah, which is these three suites. So, I’m going have another dining room the size of the one in Luna Bar and Grill right now. I’m adding another 60 seats that will bring the capacity up to 140-150. That’s a huge gamechanger. And A/C seating! You see? (Gesturing to the day and patio surrounding us.) Even today, it’s beautiful, and we may have sat four tables out here all day. They’re just so used to it being kind of gross outside. But in the summer, man, yeah … for lunches, that’s gonna kill. We turn away business every single day because we don’t have enough a/c seating. Well, we’re finally about to.
But, as of now, I have a handshake deal. We’re supposed to go see attorneys and sign paperwork and all of that. But I have a fella who’s buying it (Luna Live), and we’re supposed to be out by March 1, and you know it’s not an easy thing. It’s not a comfortable thing. I’m excited about the break, and the pressure and weight comes off my shoulders when it happens, but I am devastated … just upset, to no end. This is one of my babies, albeit just a gigantic one.
If I were independently wealthy, I would have already redone it to make it where it could work. I’ve given it everything I could, tried as hard as I could. I tried to bring all the different types of music, as much as possible, trying to find what would work. But most of the want and desire for shows is being filled by the casinos and our festivals these days, so it’s just a much more doable situation having this great opportunity to expand Luna Bar and Grill and bring it all back home. It just makes sense.
Justin: Enough so that, despite your heartbreak over the situation, the new possibilities and potential still outweigh that?
Dave: Oh, completely, because it’s all work and all effort, and having two related, but separate operations is twice that. This way, I’ll be able to focus on taking better care of the one that takes care of me. It’s bittersweet, and I (am selling Luna Live) with a heavy heart. But at the end of the day, I’m going to have more time with my wife and my kids. I get to pay better attention to my initial baby — the one that pays my house note, and the one that’s going to be replicated in Lafayette, Baton Rouge and all of these other cities that want it and who have reached out to me for it. I’ve gotten more inquiries from Houston than anywhere else, and that’s just crazy to me.
We’ll be able to do what we do better in a bigger space, and on one side of the street. We have a food trailer that we bought in August, and we plan on putting it to work on street corners near you. We’ve had lots of requests from Moss Bluff, Westlake and Sulphur that would be up for us going out there a couple of times a week and bringing the food to them with satellite service. I love that. It’ll be a big undertaking, but that’s in the future, but most of all, I’ll love just being under one roof where we’ll be more economical and have a much better grasp as a brand.
Now, with the expansion and renovation, we are changing out everything — updating all the floors, putting up a ton of new artwork. We’re going to do what a lot of my favorite places, like The House of Blues, Cochon and Cochon Butcher, Chef Donald Link’s places, have done, and that’s maximizing their brand. We’re going to have a merchandise area, and a bunch of new Luna Bar and Grill shirts; I’ve got a cookbook in the works. Things like that help build and support your brand without the severe marketing wastes, and they’re more the things that help to build you up in making you you.
Since the Waitr and to-go activity will be moving back over here, we’ll have a new Waitr and to-go area, as well as a new waiting area for our in-house guests, and even new custom iron work out front. It’s going to be quite the transformation. We’re gonna do a number on this ol’ girl.
Justin: So, outside of the extensive physical changes to the restaurant, brand identity seems to be the theme of the day.
Dave: I think what you said right there best describes what we’re doing: We are focusing on brand identity. Everything is going to become more identified with Luna Bar and Grill, and I don’t have to carry both loads if it’s all one again. I can have pint glasses with our logo, and I can have logoed to-go bags. This’ll give me the time and resources to put towards that.
Justin: Aside from that, what else do we have to look forward to at Luna in the days to come?
Dave: Man, you’ve got a lot more Luna to look forward to. Not only do I think this move will be good for me both personally and professionally, but it makes the realization of wanting to open up other locations or even franchising this thing at some point in other markets way more viable. You know, I’ve seen the stuff on Facebook (about the closing), and I know that people are upset, but the only thing to be upset about is if you just loved going into that building itself.
Jeremy Price, who did all the murals over there, is going to come do a whole new set for the expanded Bar and Grill, and maybe even redo the patio mural, still keeping the space theme but featuring the best of Louisiana’s musicians — Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong, those kind of guys. The kind of thing you’d see in Austin. I want those Luna Live styles and that vibe to carry back over.
And there’s still Chuck Fest. I do that every year, and I want to do another similarly styled festival in April. I love that we have that and that I can be a part of that, and you know, even with closing Luna Live, I think the festival is giving me all of the outlet for that I need. I get to produce this two-day-a-year festival where we host music all day and all night, and we get to showcase what we are and do it in a capacity so that thousands of people show up, because it’s an outdoor festival and because there’s 40 acts. Man, I still will get to showcase the talent of the town and show my city and this downtown off, and that’s all that (Luna Live) was all about. I’ll just do it big on those few days a year.
I started Chuck Fest four years ago, and it’s just grown into something amazing. It’s such a great way to take everything about this place — the food, the music, the art, the culture — and put it on a pedestal.
So, if I’m just not supposed to be doing the venue thing, that’s fine. I’m okay with that, because there are amazing things in store for Luna Bar and Grill, and Luna Live will live on in the live music we bring to downtown Lake Charles. We’re never going to stop. The music is never going to stop.
And with that, Dave and I made our way back to the bar and, with well wishes for the big days ahead, shook hands and parted ways. I meant to ask him about any farewell party (that I subsequently found out will be dubbed “Luna Live: The Funeral” aka “The Lunaral,” and will be taking place on Saturday, Feb. 24), but it was too late. Back to the kitchen he went. I turned to the bartender to pay for my sandwich, the remnants of which still sat at my seat at the bar. I paid the dark-haired woman who asked, “Would you like a box for that?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t like its attitude.”
“Wait. Was there something wrong with it or something? I can tell the kitchen …”
“Oh no, no, no. It tasted just fine. It is just not to be trusted, and under no circumstances whatsoever should you believe a single word it says.”
She looked at me with a confused expression, but I gave it no mind. I simply turned and walked out into the afternoon sun.