The SeaBreeze Tavern, before renovation.
(Via Aptos Chamber of Commerce)
Coast Life

Ask Lookout: What’s up with the old SeaBreeze Tavern in Rio Del Mar?

Editor’s Note: This is the debut of Ask Lookout. It’s your place to ask us anything you want about life in Santa Cruz County. Stymied by a bureaucratic nightmare, wondering about that fave restaurant that still hasn’t opened or intrigued by in-process construction you see going up, ask. Our Lookout staff will pick the best questions and do our best to answer them. We’ve kicked off the new feature with one of our own favorite questions: What’s up with the SeaBreeze Tavern? Write news@lookoutlocal.com, and put Ask Lookout in the subject line.

Question: What’s going on with the old SeaBreeze Tavern spot? It seemed like a seedy part of the Rio Del Mar beachfront, but somehow I miss it, kind of a lost landmark. I remember it burned, but was still standing. Now it’s gone. What’s up with it?

Ask Lookout series graphic

The SeaBreeze Tavern fire, which started in a garbage pile and spread to the roof in June 2020, caught the attention of many, and its remains — which stood for another 11 months — sat lifelessly, visible to those brave enough to venture out into our pandemic-stricken world to see.

The SeaBreeze was located across a busy parking lot from iconic Rio Del Mar State Beach in Aptos, a five-minute walk from the famous cement ship, and a couple doors down from Cafe Rio. It had been a jewel of the area in the 1960s and 1970s.

You aren’t alone in wondering. People wondered about the fire itself — no official cause was given — and then marveled at the building’s ruins for some months until they were demolished after an engineer declared them unsafe and unsalvageable.

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But that tale of flaming loss isn’t the most interesting part. It’s basically everything else.

Drug use, illegal marijuana dispensaries within the bar, and even an instance of a pornographic video projected onto the side of the tavern for all to see made the other more obvious eyesores like broken windows and a toilet on the deck seem tame, say those who witnessed them.

If this all sounds like a strange tale, well, you’d be right. The SeaBreeze Tavern became a beacon of peculiarity, and not in the charming Santa Cruz-y way.

The bar was in foreclosure for the years leading up to the pandemic, but those who came in contact with it previously were less than impressed.

The empty lot where the SeaBreeze Tavern used to sit.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Then-owner Rich McInnis purchased the structure — which was built in 1928 and had been a bar since 1956 — in 2005, renovated it for two years, and reopened for business in 2007.

During his tenure, the SeaBreeze manufactured a near-constant stream of community complaints, legal troubles and financial hardships. McInnis himself had numerous run-ins with the law. Those include arrests for domestic abuse, false imprisonment, resisting arrest and for violating a protective order. He was also accused of running an illegal cannabis dispensary out of the SeaBreeze and lost his liquor license in 2017.

Second District Supervisor Zach Friend, whose county district includes the area, recalls the tavern’s turbulent recent history. His office was flooded with complaints day in and day out. In fact, he told Lookout, it received more complaints about this particular property than about any other parcel, so it wasn’t just a few disgruntled neighbors.

Friend also lamented the business’ failure to reach its own potential, as its beachside location could have been popular among both locals and visitors.

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“The location and history gave it an opportunity to be a true crown jewel of the Esplanade area; instead, it’s really been a curse for much of the last 10 to 20 years,” he said. “It survived a fire, innumerable floods and weather-related challenges, but ironically, it couldn’t survive the last owner.”

Lookout tried to reach McInnis, but our efforts were unsuccessful; he apparently is nowhere to be found. The most recent findable contact information was the phone number and email for the tavern, which he provided when he ran for county supervisor in 2016.

More than anything, Friend said he hopes that whatever comes next is given better treatment than the SeaBreeze was given. In view of the problems the neighborhood had experienced for years, you can bet locals will be vocal in what they want.

What might come next, on what is now a quite vacant lot in quite a publicly prominent location?

We don’t know yet, but we will follow this tale.

In January 2021, Omar Billawala, a tech executive in San Jose, bought the property, paying just over $1.2 million. At that point, it had the remains of the fire-damaged building on it, but four months later, after a final engineering report showed that the property was structurally unsound and unsalvageable, it had to be torn down.

Crews demolish iconic Seabreeze Tavern
Crowds gathered on May 4, 2021, to watch as crews demolished the iconic Seabreeze Tavern after a fire ripped through the structure the previous year.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout tried to get a hold of Billawala, but he has not responded to our inquiries.

His development decisions might be constrained.

Both the location within the coastal zone and the fact that it is a “locally designated historic building” will limit what can and can’t be built there.

John Hibble, Aptos Chamber of Commerce co-director and an Aptos historian, takes a long view of the SeaBreeze tale. It originally opened in 1956, replacing a burger joint.

He summed it up pretty well: “It’s had its ups and downs, but I think it really had more downs than ups.”

The tavern was a popular place during much of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Rio del Mar was a major tourist area, said Hibble, and sat right across from a pier that attracted plenty of folks, whether they were on vacation or just out for a stroll through the Esplanade.

However, that stage was relatively short-lived.

Georgia Derber, the lively personality who had owned the tavern during this period, withdrew from the community as she grew older and the SeaBreeze diminished in popularity, said Hibble. By the 1980s, the tavern was a shell of its former self.

Derber died in 2004, with no heirs, and the building was sold to McInnis the following year.

Hibble, like others, is pointed in his critique of the McInnis years, saying he did little to nothing to improve the building. Without a well-equipped kitchen or sprinkler system, the SeaBreeze couldn’t serve food — which could explain some of the other activities that people complained vehemently about.

With its dilapidated exterior, accusations of drug use and the infamous porno projection on the side wall, trouble multiplied.

Crews demolish iconic Seabreeze Tavern
Crowds gathered on May 4, 2021, to watch as crews demolished the iconic Seabreeze Tavern after a fire ripped through the structure the previous year.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One person remembers the decline sadly.

McInnis’ previous partner, who was closely involved in McInnis’ tenure as owner and prefers not to be identified, says she envisioned a casual spot where visitors and locals could gather.

When things began to deteriorate with McInnis, she walked away, she says. However, the troublesome events that took place at the SeaBreeze have haunted her ever since.

She says that in the community, people would approach her to share their frustrations with their treatment. Frustrated that she couldn’t change things, she says, she ended up walking away.

“I avoided driving by that place for a year and a half,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to see the damage from the fire, and then the vacant space where the historical landmark building that I spent years lovingly restoring, used to be.”

She hasn’t seen or spoken with McInnis in several years, she said, but the business’ failure pains her to this day. Even so, she looks forward to the lot’s future, and hopes that something can succeed there.

“If he [Omar] ever builds anything, I’m gonna go down there, shake his hand, and thank him for bringing something fresh to the neighborhood,” she said.

Though we don’t know what, if anything, Billawala intends to do with the land, others from the area have their own ideas for the place.

Jeanne Harrison, owner of the neighboring Cafe Rio restaurant, hopes to see variety brought to the area. She would like to see something of a mixed-use facility, where people can enjoy food, drinks, and maybe even live music and shows.

Above all, Harrison wants to move forward from the previous troubles.

“If you came to the tavern, he [McInnis] might serve you or he might not,” she said. “He had been a nemesis for the neighborhood for some time, and I hope something can come of the lot.”

Supervisor Friend couldn’t agree more.

“The location deserves a rebirth, and getting rid of the cancer that was the previous owner is a huge first step,” he said. “I’m sure that the community will have an active role in trying to envision what should go in there.”