Chicago on the Beach: 710 Club huddles with Chi-Town fans on game days

When Bob and Stacey Morrone of Las Vegas planned their 25th wedding anniversary last month, they eventually settled on enjoying their special occasion together in San Diego, like others had done before them. With all of the unique sites, great dining, fun activities and gorgeous beaches available in America’s Finest City, the couple was found seated at a corner of the bar at the 710 Beach Club in the early morning of Sunday, Sept. 10, watching the TV screen above them.

The opening game of the Chicago Bears football season against the NFC Conference champion Atlanta Falcons was being televised, and for Bob, who was born and raised in suburban Tinley Park south of Chicago, there was no sweeter way to celebrate.

“(Stacey) was nice enough to let me come down for the Chicago Bears game, so tomorrow is all about her,” he said. “This place is really authentic and everything is Chicago style ... I love this place. I’m from Chicago. What’s not to love?”

Located on Garnet Avenue just across the boardwalk from Crystal Pier, the 710 Beach Club has been catering to Windy City sports fanatics since the place was purchased by Scott Slaga and a couple of partners in 1992.

The ninth of 11 children born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Slaga landed a job in Los Angeles in 1990 as an engineer with defense contractor Hughes and would visit San Diego often for work-related reasons, as well as for quick getaways from LA. However, Slaga was plagued by homesickness. So when Bangers, the bar in Pacific Beach Slaga would frequent during his sojourns to San Diego, went up for sale, Slaga snatched it up.

“I was going to move back because I missed Chicago; the people, the blues, the food, the sports,” he said. “The girl I was dating at the time said, ‘Can’t you bring those things here?’ ... To own a bar on a beach is every little Chicago boy’s dream — no mosquitoes, no chapped lips and no having to start up the car 20 minutes before leaving.”

Slaga had no difficulties in stirring up interest in a Chicago sports bar because of the sizable Chicago expat community in San Diego. Greg Miedema and 14 friends had formed an informal group they called WACCO (West Association of Crazy Chicagoans and Others) in 1990 and moved their patronage from the former Sluggo’s Bar to the 710 Beach Club (launched as Blind Melon originally) when Slaga took over.

“There was one TV here (in 1992) and I remember trying to adjust the antenna to get the picture,” Miedema said. “Word got out of the camaraderie of Chicago sports fans. To see these transplants coming together and to experience the enthusiasm; it’s almost better than being in Chicago, where you take it for granted.”

Over the years, Slaga brought in more televisions for a total of 18 screens today and bought the restaurant next door to add Chicago-style food, including the introduction of an Italian beef sandwich, a Chicago classic, this year.

Pacific Beach is host to a number of establishments catering to fans of sports teams from other cities, such as Bub’s Dive Bar (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Millers Field (New York Giants). In fact, a lot of bars are loyal to the Los Angeles Chargers. (Full disclosure: This writer was born and bred in Chicago.)

However, Peter Burke, who works as a bar back and security, notes that most of the 25-person staff at the 710 Beach Club were born in Chicago, including himself. “There’s a Packer bar in PB, but how many people working there do you think are actually from Green Bay?” he said. “We feel anxiety and excitement with the customers the whole game.”

According to Slaga, the bar’s reputation has generated appearances from Bears all-time greats over the years, including Jim McMahon, William “the Refrigerator” Perry and the legendary Dick Butkus.

As a Chicago sports bar in San Diego, the 710 Beach Club draws overflowing crowds when Chicago teams win it all, such as the Chicago Black Hawks in recent years. But when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series last year for the first time in 108 years, Slaga said the scene was stupefying. “There were hundreds of people outside,” he recalled. “The cops had to shut down the block. It wasn’t even a San Diego team. But the cops were really nice and accommodating when they didn’t have to be. I mean, it was a once-in-a-century event.”

Yet it’s the Bears, with their 16 NFL games on Sundays, which pack them in consistently. Although the 710 Beach Club is a beach bar, a local bar and a night club with live music on the weekends, that clientele is nowhere to be found during a Bears game according to bartender Jenifer Davis. “It’s all Chicago people,” she said. “Usually we get tourists because we’re off the boardwalk. [When the Bears play], they’re not tourists. They’re not from PB, unless they’re from Chicago.”

Mike Tobin, who moved to Pacific Beach from Chicago more than five years, said that his friends visit from the Second City just to witness the fervor at the 710 Beach Club. “In Chicago, you go to a bar with three friends,” he said. “This is family. You eat, drink, win and lose together.”

Yet if the 710 Beach Club is such a genuine Chicago bar, where’s the Old Style beer?

“It would be here if it could,” stated Andrew Drmak, who moved to Pacific Beach 12 years ago. “Old Style is so Chicago, it can’t leave Chicago.”

By hosting Chicago Bears games for the past quarter century, a number of rituals have developed. Perhaps the most curious is the halftime dip into the nearby ocean, affectionately called “Lake Pacific” among the gathered Bears fan. A total of about 30 patrons marched to the beach en masse during halftime while peeling off their garments to the bathing suits underneath during the Sept. 10 game.

Emerging from the waters, Andrew Fisher noted the incongruity in his first visit to his brother in Pacific Beach from anything he’s experienced back home in Chicago.

“(This is) not at all like Chicago,” he said. “The weather. I got sunburn. And they got salt in the lake.”

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