Max Turigliatto inside Mission West on Santa Cruz's Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

Five-star dive bars: Max Turigliatto is breathing new life into Santa Cruz’s watering holes

In 2019, local business owner Max Turigliatto transformed the Watering Hole, a neglected dive bar off of Mission Street in Santa Cruz, into a “five-star dive bar” for the Westside community. Now, he plans to open the Alley Oop in the former Poet & Patriot, and looks to put his stamp on downtown and a growing Cedar Street entertainment corridor.

On the outside, very little has changed at Ye Olde Watering Hole in the past few years. Since the 1990s, the bar has called a low, gray building off of busy Mission Street in Santa Cruz home, sandwiched between Tam’s Chinese Cuisine and Upper Crust Pizza, two other Westside institutions. A faded blue-and-white sign still bears its establishment’s name; its neon is still broken, as it has been many years.

But walk inside and you’ll realize that this is not the dusty dive its exterior might have led you to believe. Edison light bulbs softly glow over a long bar, illuminating shelves of quality liquor and glinting off of stylish glassware. Historic black-and-white photos of seaside life in Santa Cruz in the 1950s decorate the walls. A short draft list of craft beers hangs next to squat, 2-gallon oak barrels quietly aging pre-mixed Negronis and Manhattans, softening the liquor’s harsh edges for a more complex cocktail.

To be clear, it still has the soul of a dive bar, but a really nice one. “We coined ‘five-star dive bar,’” says new owner Max Turigliatto. “I still have Jack Daniel’s. I still have Budweiser. But there’s a lot more.”

Another thing that’s changed: the name — well, kind of. Turigliatto renamed the bar Mission West when he purchased it in 2019, but The Watering Hole — or, more affectionately, “The Hole” — has stuck around. He embraced the alias, even branding it on T-shirts and hats that read “Mission West, the old Watering Hole.”

Now, the 31-year-old Santa Cruz native is preparing to bring new life to another beloved but down-at-the-heels bar: the former Poet & Patriot Irish Pub in downtown Santa Cruz. The Poet closed permanently in 2020 after 38 years in business, devastating longtime fans who frequented the low-key pub for darts, live music, trivia and a cold pint. Turigliatto took over the space in January and plans to open a cocktail bar with a New Orleans vibe called the Alley Oop. The project is still in the early stages of renovation but could open as early as the first part of 2024.

The vision: transform the low-ceilinged space into a cozy, date-night spot that complements the nearby Kuumbwa Jazz Center, with whom it shares a small parking lot off of Cedar Street known as Theater Square. Turigliatto has a musical background — he played drums in a cover band when he was a teenager and participated in Kuumbwa’s jazz camps as a kid — so he knows the small but mighty concert venue well: “I understood what they were interested in and it seemed like a really good fit.”

A bride and groom pose in front of the Watering Hole during a wedding afterparty.
(Via Ben Ingram Visuals)

Working in synergy with the Kuumbwa, Turigliatto hopes to contribute to a growing entertainment corridor along the south end of Cedar Street that already includes the Kuumbwa, Redwood Records and Lúpulo Craft Beer House. Soif Wine Bar and Merchant announced in July that it will move from Walnut Avenue to the old Caffe Pergolesi location one block away from the Alley Oop.

He plans to clean up and beautify Birch Lane, the alley that runs alongside the Alley Oop between Cedar Street and Pacific Avenue, with lighting that will lure guests in from the main drag. A piano will play inside the bar and a menu will offer snacks and share plates so guests can stop in for a drink and a bite before or after a show or dinner. When the project is complete, Turigliatto hopes it will “give a little bit of romance to that side of downtown.”

Turigliatto was initially wary of opening a business in downtown Santa Cruz, especially the south end of Pacific Avenue, home to popular bars and nightclubs but where problems with loitering and panhandling have discouraged commercial activity. “I love it, I support it, but it has some issues, and I was scared, honestly,” he says. “But there is a big transition going on downtown.”

Twelve significant construction projects are currently underway in the downtown area, and more than half of them are concentrated within a few blocks of the Alley Oop. These projects will add more than a thousand housing units to downtown Santa Cruz, plus a new hotel, bus station and library, as well as 10 new dining establishments, among other additions. Some of the first projects are slated to be completed by early next year.

Mission West's community block parties
Mission West’s community block parties regularly draw around a thousand people with live music, local food and liquor sponsorships.
(Via Max Turigliatto)

“I thought, this is an opportunity to do the same thing I did up on the Westside and really put my 2 cents into downtown,” says Turigliatto.

A few years ago, he saw a similar transformation happening on the Westside. Historically a working class area of town, over the past decade local businesses have blossomed along Swift Street and Fair Avenue. Now, the area is dense with tasting rooms, breweries, craft coffee, restaurants, art galleries and retail shops.

A customer of the original “Hole,” it took Turigliatto three years to convince owner Debbie Mandella, who ran the bar for almost 30 years, to sell it to him. Using his own private funds and investments from community members, he purchased the business in 2019.

“I saw a neighborhood dive bar that just needed some love,” says Turigliatto. To him, it was a “diamond in the rough,” that had been overshadowed by a tough crowd and earned a reputation for being unfriendly, even dangerous. He says Mandella considered selling it to someone from out of town, but he convinced her to keep it in local hands. “I felt like the neighborhood needed their little dive bar back.”

The transition was hard, he admits. And it was made more difficult by the onset of the pandemic, which shuttered the six-month-old Mission West for months. One upside was that it allowed Turigliatto to open a shaded patio with picnic tables behind the building. Not only is it still in use daily, four times a year, it’s also the site of some of the largest community events on the Westside, with live music from popular local bands, drink sponsorships and food from local food vendors and restaurants.

“The idea behind it was to offer a block party for the Westside,” says Turigliatto, who was inspired by Event Santa Cruz’s Midtown block parties. The first event was held in 2020 to celebrate Mission West’s anniversary. Bartender Steve Rogers’ band Space Heater played and the fire department permitted fire dancers to perform. “It was an instant hit,” Turigliatto says. Now, the events regularly draw around a thousand people.

The next event is Saturday, July 29, and will have a Brazilian Carnival theme. Afro-funk dance group SambaDá starts at 6 p.m. and Santa Cruz fish market H&H Fresh Fish is selling tacos, sandwiches and fresh oysters. The event is sponsored by Bacardi Rum, Sky Vodka and Red Bull, and Mission West is mixing up tropical drinks and punches.

A whiskey & blues event is planned for Aug. 26, with Americana band the Coffis Brothers, food by Flashbird and Alderwood Pacific and beverages from 11th Hour Coffee and Bulleit Bourbon. A final event for the season will take place Oct. 28 with a Dia de los Muertos theme.

While the events are “a ton of work,” Turigliatto says, “It’s about getting new faces in the door and letting people know we’re here.”

So, will he ever change the sign from Ye Olde Watering Hole to Mission West? Turgliatto admits that, initially, the sign was left up because the money he would have used to change or update it went to keeping the bar afloat during lockdown. Now, he appreciates that it gives Mission West a certain speakeasy mystique.

“It’s such a shock factor. Like, whoa, this is not what it looks like on the outside,” says Turrigliatto. “People love that sign in a weird way even though it’s terrible and dumpy. It’s kind of a landmark. Everyone still calls us the Hole — and that’s OK.”

Mission West, 2405 Mission St., Santa Cruz.
The Alley Oop, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz.