By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
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First, you have to know that Spike TV still exists. Then you'll have to take my word that one of its reality shows is a Kitchen Nightmares clone called Bar Rescue. Then you'll have to know that Tempe's Rocky Point Cantina (subsequently briefly known as Havana Cabana) is the bar that the show set out to rescue in the 21st episode of Season 3.
Then, if you don't live in Tempe or see a lot of metal shows, you'll have to know this: Rocky Point Cantina is closed. It's been closed since shortly after Jon Taffer and his coterie of goofy Bar Business Experts rolled through town, determined to — their words — "run off the metal-head clientele and straighten out this festering mosh pit of failure."
Anyone who's been within a few miles or degrees of separation of a reality show in progress knows that it takes a while to build the kind of narrative you can pitch in a press release. Bar Rescue began crafting theirs back in May, when it made an ersatz casting call for reality TV extras to participate in the bar's "stress test," the part of any good reality show where It All Comes Crashing Down and the amateurs have no choice but to follow the experts' advice.
The version of Rocky Point Cantina that Taffer and company presented wasn't altogether false. Read the venue's Yelp reviews and you'll see many of the same complaints about surly staff and grimy surfaces. Nobody we could talk to — the owners are reluctant to talk without advice from a lawyer — mourns Rocky Point, exactly.
But the picture Bar Rescue presented was a manufactured catastrophe: a bar that no longer was a bar struggling to keep up with a reality-show audience; a mosh pit spiced in from footage of a national act's show; mic'd-up college girls with names like Alyx and Symphony.
"I thought it was pretty lame," says Jeffrey Robens, whose band, Killing Spree, is the one playing in the chaotic "before" shots. (The crowd in the cutaway shots, he says, wasn't theirs.) "[Filming] was pretty much three weeks after college [let out for the summer], and they're talking about how it's supposed to be a college bar and there's supposed to be college kids there, but they chose to do it when there's no college in session. I thought that was interesting.
"There were very few times I saw that place empty when it was open."
The conversion to Havana Cabana didn't cause Rocky Point's closure; people we talked to suggested Tempe had been hoping to shut it down for some time. But it was what occasioned the venue's final, ill-fated brush with the city of Tempe. The facelift and the new name would have been fine — trivial — except that Bar Rescue didn't bother filing any permits with the city for the work and the new business model.
Which would also be fine, except that the show's producers told the owners they did. Notes from a Development Review Commission meeting held on July 23 say that "the owner was advised by the producer that all permits for work would be taken care of prior to the bar rehabilitation, and was unaware that the exterior modification was done without authorization."
One possibility to consider: This is part of a backdoor pilot for a show called Reality Show Rescue, in which Bar Rescue's sloppy work is taken to task with an even more hidden set of hidden cameras.
Less than a week's worth of minor renovations, then, sent them back to the Development Review Commission. And as it turns out, the minute Rocky Point Cantina changed its name and its business model, it was signing away its own live entertainment permit.
On July 16, Francis Massimiano, the family's put-upon patriarch on TV, applied for a live entertainment use permit on behalf of the new and improved Havana Cabana Bar and Grill. According to the notes from their hearing, they hadn't had one when they were Rocky Point Cantina, either; the original use permit had been granted to Dos Gringos and transferred to the Massimianos when they took over ownership of the bar.
An unfulfilled attempt to perform their own bar rescue — "We are in the process of re-branding the restaurant and diversifying the menu to be a more diverse restaurant that will attract a lunch business and evening dinner crowd with great food and light entertainment," Francis Massimiano wrote back in 2010 — rendered their original permit invalid, but that only jammed them up when they attempted to transfer it, one more time, to Havana Cabana.
When they applied for the new use permit, it became clear that "light entertainment" — not to mention "lunch" and "dinner" — were not on the menu. ("The venue was open only for concerts, and available for booking as an event venue [i.e., no hours of operation as a bar or restaurant]," the Development Review Commission notes for July 16 say.) That's all pretty bad, but here's the damning part: "Bar cover charge is appropriate for live entertainment ancillary to the main use as a bar; a concert venue is not appropriate in this location."
This isn't all Spike TV's fault, but everything Bar Rescue tried to do uncovered more problems for Rocky Point. A name change exposed an invalid permit; renovations performed without a permit inspired more scrutiny; and a subsequent safety inspection uncovered old and new problems, requiring "the owner [to retain] an architect, structural engineer, and sound engineer to assess the site for code requirements."
In the end, Havana Cabana's request for a live entertainment permit of its own was denied. Several months of death metal concerts were canceled or moved, and Havana Cabana closed, fresh coat of paint and all.
The final twist is that after Bar Rescue left and before Havana Cabana closed, things mostly went back to normal. Far from the picture presented at the end of the episode — "Six weeks after Bar Rescue left, staff reported that Havana Cabana brought in up to $6,000 a night" — the metal shows started up soon after Taffer and company left.
"As soon as they turned the cameras off, everything went back to the way it was, except it was that shitty pastel color," Robens says. "Our CD release was, like, three or four weeks after that happened, and it was at Rocky Point Cantina . . . they didn't do any construction. They just redid the lines for the beer and all that stuff and painted the walls and put gross pictures of old ladies smoking cigars everywhere."
So out went the plans for a vibrant, healthier menu and a new clientele; in came the metal shows and the fried food. "From what I recall," Robens says, "they weren't open like they wanted them to be — during lunch and all that crap — because nobody came in . . . They tried it for a couple of days and it didn't work out."
"What happens speaks for itself," Robens says. "Once it wasn't a metal venue anymore, the place closed down."