Among the wonderful attractions that we San Diegans enjoy is Old Town. The State Park is a great place to stroll, appreciate local history, and down a couple margaritas while grabbing a couple tacos. And now, thanks to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Old Town is now a great place for live music, too.
With performances that fill the weekly calendar and some back-to-back performances, it is almost impossible to visit the landmark restaurant and bar when there isn’t someone singing or someone playing a guitar. The current musical line-up includes everything from a jazz singers’ showcase to old-time favorites on the piano.
For years known as the Casa di Bandini and featuring a menu of Mexican fare, new management has changed the name back to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the original name of the establishment. The restaurant’s menu has also been revamped, receiving rave reviews. Dinner entrees include temptations such as apple cider glazed pork cheeks, prime rib, and sesame seared ahi tuna. The Spanish Colonial style structure, whose thick adobe walls of the first floor date back to 1827, also serves as a bed and breakfast/hotel.
The music takes place in the outside dining area, which is shaded by a handsome pergola and features a rectangular fire pit. A piano, an upright built in 1898, sits in the corner next to the hotel building. The piano gets played a lot. “We’ve got piano Friday night, all day Saturday, and Sunday From 11 till five,” says Catherine Miller, one of the new owners of the Cosmopolitan. “Doug Stevens plays every Friday and Saturday night and Michelangelo plays Saturdays and Sundays from 11 till five.”
Often wearing a top hat and bygone garb of generations past, Stevens plays Americana, Tin Pan Alley, and other old-time favorites. “He started playing a lot of Americana music when he first started here,” says Miller. “But he’ll also play Celtic or pop standards. He’s really versatile.” Stevens has played piano since he was a child and performed in various bands, from rock to swing. His music has taken him to perform in Las Vegas as well as Great Britain, Europe, and South America, with his travels infusing his music with a bit of an international flair.
Weekend afternoons are sometimes spiced with an even more international flavor, when Michelangelo sits at the keyboards. Miller says, “Michaelangelo is just amazing. We had some guests from Japan come in one day and just as they walked in, Michelangelo started playing the Japanese national anthem! He’s played music from the Middle East for people from that part of the world, too.” Miller adds that with Michelangelo and Stevens the intent is not to create a piano bar, but people often stop by the piano and sing along with the pianists.
Folks who are interested in the traditional piano bar scene can visit the restaurant on Tuesday evenings. Known as the Cosmo jazz showcase, all singers who want to have a go at some jazz standards are welcome to get behind the microphone with the backup of guitarist Mark Augustin and drummer/bassist Ted Williams. Augustin is a veteran musician, whose influences include Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, and Pat Metheny. Ted Williams manages, amazingly, to excel at playing the bass and drums at the same time. The two form something of a jazz duo/trio.
On a recent warm evening, while small tongues of flame flitted from the fire pit, Michela Dalla Pozza swung through her renditions of the jazz standards “All of Me,” “Corcovado,” and “Route 66.” A transplant to San Diego from northern Italy – by way of Saipan and Florida – Dalla Pozza is a regular at the Tuesday night showcase. “It’s just great to sing. The band is wonderful and the atmosphere is great,” she says. “It’s a great place to try new tunes, too. What else could you want?”
Alan Land, a life-long singer with a distinctive baritone, can also be counted on to attend the weekly showcase. “This showcase has been going on for about three months. As with any other piano bar, there are the regulars – four or five folks who can be counted on the show up every week or almost every week,” he says. “And every week there are a few new folks who show up, too. One guy from Boston even came. He had found out about the singer showcase on Facebook and decided to stop in while he was visiting San Diego.” Land just recently began performing a night of his own, Wednesdays, singing popular favorites as well as a few original songs.
“We’re so glad that we can serve as a showcase for local singers,” says Miller. “And I’m so excited about all the music. This is a really lovely place with a lovely garden. We want the music to add to that experience.”