Come on down to Belly Up Tavern

by David Dixon

The Belly Up Tavern has been entertaining San Diegans for years with acts that range from famous music stars to rising talents. It’s more than a bar or a concert venue. It’s a place where you can hang out, eat, drink and be merry. The Aztec was lucky enough to interview Meryl Klemow, who is responsible for show promotion and marketing at the immensely popular 21-and-older spot.

The Aztec: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Belly Up?

Meryl Klemow: It opened up in 1974 and originally was in a Quonset Hut. The venue was named the Belly Up because at the time the owner, Dave Hodges’ friend, jokingly said, “Don’t do that, your bar is going to go belly up.” Dave thought it was so funny, that he decided that would be the name of the bar.

It’s been almost 40 years of great business. Fortunately, it’s been a really steady and successful business since it opened. Hodges still “owns” part of the street, South Cedros Avenue. He set the tone for how the club would be. The owners now, Steve Goldberg and Phil Berkovitz, have kept that same vibe and have added onto it.

TA: Does your audience influence your selection of musicians or vice versa?

MK: Both. We’ve been taking more risks in the past two to three years because our audience has shown that they support when we make unconditional choices. For example, country music doesn’t play often, but we had Willie Nelson perform. We didn’t understand the impact of how much a place like Solana Beach is dying to see him.

We booked some of these bands at first and our audience responded by making it clear that the show was going to sell out.

TA: The Belly Up seems to be run a little looser than other concert venues. Do you think Belly Up has a reputation for being a laid-back environment?

MK: Yes and no. Behind the scenes, definitely not. We put a lot of thoughts on ads and have meetings on Thursdays on the dot to schedule bands. Some of our acts, such as DJ Z-Trip, don’t have an opening act begin until an hour after showtime. However, others such as B.B. King, won’t show up more than 1 minute late.

We’re loose in the sense that there isn’t a radio-festival feel where tons of people run to the stage, and we try to be mellow with our customers as well.

TA: What do you consider to be a success: The largest amount of attendees or a group that puts on a phenomenal show even though there aren’t many fans present?  

MK: On a larger scale, what we consider to be a success is a full year of shows. It is impressive when artists such as Snoop Dogg, Wynonna Judd and The Joy Formidable all perform in the same year. On a day-to-day basis, a successful night would be if we both make money and if everyone at Belly Up had a good time. Money’s not everything and we’ve turned down bands that we don’t believe in, even though their concert could have been a big success.

TA: How can bands be booked for Belly Up?

MK: Make sure you have a great, solid, North County fanbase. We have a lot of people that are successful in San Diego, but unfortunately many of their fans can’t make it on weekdays and attendance becomes low. The band can then tell us where they played in the past and share a video of them performing.