While handling the live music portion of Iva Lee’s Restaurant & Lounge, Eric Wagoner has made it his goal to see people enjoying themselves listening to the music, as well as socializing and drinking and eating.
Wagoner, who runs the local business alongside Lisa, his wife and co-founder, prides himself on the roughly 18 years he’s been involved in the music industry. Using that experience, he’s worked to bring in a range of musical acts that perform blues, classic rock, and modern dance.
“We’ve found that most of the San Clemente public really wants to hear music that they’re familiar with,” Wagoner says. “So, we’ve shifted, and we hire more fun cover bands that get people up and dancing.”
Wagoner’s efforts have certainly paid off throughout the years, as evidenced by the voices of San Clemente Times readers who continue to vote Iva Lee’s as the Best Venue for Live Music in town. For the 11th consecutive year, Iva Lee’s, which specializes in classic Creole cuisine and a down-home Southern environment, has captured a Golden Ole in this category.
This year’s Silver Ole winner is Beachfire Bar & Grill in Downtown San Clemente. The local eatery, which offers coastal plates and signature cocktails in addition to live entertainment, has captured eight total medals over the lifetime of the awards. This is the first medal BeachFire has earned for this category since 2012.
BeachFire owner Edgar Carbajal told SC Times that music is his passion and that his restaurant enjoys supporting local artists. He says it was “super exciting” to receive the nomination, as they host musicians five days per week and work closely with a music director to select well-vetted performers.
“We have a scratch kitchen and bar that we’re very proud of and take very seriously,” Carbajal says of the efforts BeachFire puts into providing for its audience. “We do the same with our music.”
At Iva Lee’s, Wagoner says, live music plays a significant role, as management’s focus has turned away from the fine dining aspect. Since the switch, the owners have made cosmetic changes in moving and expanding the stage layout in addition to working to attract bands with a larger audience.
The business has reached a point in which bands across Southern California contact Wagoner to play at Iva Lee’s.
He says he receives about 10 requests weekly, but the groups he typically calls back to repeatedly perform at his restaurant have a bigger following.
“Sometimes, it’s kind of hard to say ‘no’ to a band, because they might be really good,” says Wagoner. “But if they’re from Downtown San Diego, (you have to ask) how many people are going to drive all the way up here to see (them)? So, we tend to hire more local bands.”
He adds that they have about 35 different bands rotate through the Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays that Iva Lee’s hosts live music.
The comforting feeling people have at the restaurant makes it a good setting for music, Wagoner says, in addition to the quality food and drink offered at reasonable prices.
Staff members at Iva Lee’s want guests to feel safe and easily enjoy the environment, which is bolstered by the lack of a raucous crowd. Wagoner says they never have issues with obnoxious customers or fights that they have to handle.
In terms of his experiences landing and working with musicians, a lot of research is involved, according to Wagoner. He likens the process to doing a background check whenever he hires a cook or server.
It helps that he has connections with other local venues that host music that can speak to artists’ character.
“If they’re a band that doesn’t have a website or a Facebook page or Instagram, it’s hard for me to roll the dice on a Friday or Saturday night, and then they come in and they don’t have anyone to come see them or they’re not that great,” Wagoner says.
How bands represent themselves elsewhere is essential to determining whether to hire them for a performance, he says.
Additionally, the bands that perform at Iva Lee’s sometimes refer Wagoner to other groups he might be interested in researching.
“Usually, musicians won’t refer another band if they’re not good, so I really respect the musicians’ input on bands,” he says.
Since beginning the revamp of the stage area in late 2022, which features a new mural resembling a Louisiana swamp and wood accents, Wagoner teases that more changes are coming. They moved the stage from an awkward, out-of-sight position to the back wall facing the rest of the bar and restaurant.
The future tweaks include adjusting the lighting setup and staining some of the wood to provide a rustic feel.
So far, feedback from both bands and customers has been positive.
“Before, our stage was against that (front) window, so when you walked in the front door, people would be like, ‘Oh, I thought you had music here,’” Wagoner recalls. “Now, you walk in, and the stage is right there.”
After about 20 years of operating Iva Lee’s, the managing staff has finally found a good combination of the live music setup and the restaurant’s food and drink offerings. Wagoner says it was an honor to learn Iva Lee’s placed among the best in town.
Another good practice they’ve landed on includes setting up music earlier in the best interests of their customers.
“On Saturday nights, we do music from 7:30 to 11, and I think people like that around here,” says Wagoner. “A lot of places don’t even start music until 9:30 or 10, and a lot of our clientele is in bed by then.”
He adds that he was excited by the nomination.
“We love San Clemente,” he says, “and love all of our customers here.”
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