The Return of the Cellar Door
In an early 20th-century study of the most beautiful and pleasing words in the English language, conducted by several linguistic artists, including J.R.R. Tolkien, one strange word combo stood out. Cellar Door. It had a magic to the ears, creating a romantic connection with the heart, for whatever reason, not that reason ever plays much into the workings of the heart. Maybe that alone plays into the love that the community holds for our own Main Street Cellar Door, a location that has a magic appeal to both music, art and all that they entail.
Marc Dwelle grew up in Visalia, and like many Valley teens, enjoyed skating and listening to music. He tells me of times when he was looked down on, as with every up-and-coming generation, by the elders in the community who didn’t see the value in his passions. Luckily for our town, those attitudes only fanned the flames of passion in him. Along with the business sense, guts and hustle, he came up in the downtown scene by investing in it, and the rest is history.
In 1998, at the age of 26, Marc was given a golden opportunity to purchase the now-fabled downtown record store Ragin’ Records. The shop was a popular spot for the youth and young at heart to purchase records at a time when the record player was on the decline, but not the passion for the product.
Although business was booming in his dealings with the multiple car-washing enterprises that he was involved with, Marc called the record store purchase the “dumbest, most intelligent business decision I ever made.” He attributes this to the fact that he didn’t really want the business, but more so he didn’t want “some knucklehead buying the place and running it into the ground.” Through his gamble, he was rewarded with a successful business venture. Soon after, Marc aggressively put profits into another passion of producing and playing music. He started Sound N Vision, and started promoting and making music of his creation, as well as that of other talents he came across.
Fast forward to 2018. Visalia’s hottest music venue, one that had supplied the spirits and live music for the past 14 years, was closing down. Main Street was losing a crown jewel, and a wave of sadness washed over the thousands who had experienced magical nights at the hot spot.
Marc and his wife Amy were no exception. “We went to the closing party that was thrown to get one last look at the place,” Marc says. Once inside, “it was nice to see so many faces from the past coming back to say goodbye.” That’s when fate intervened. “I’m walking around and I see Ralph Bookout [the building owner] sitting at a table and he calls me over.” Bookout recognized Marc as the right person for the right offer, and that offer came with purchasing the entire building, roughly half a block of retail connected to the venue site. Soon after, Marc also purchased the business side of the Cellar Door, and there was renewed hope.
There is no other musical venue with the Cellar Door’s reputation between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and that’s a fact. That’s because in part of the hard work of Aaron Gomes, who is heavily involved in promotions through a continuance of Sound N Vision, which is now a nonprofit music and youth benefactor. The mystique of the venue was sold to acts that typically wouldn’t have batted an eye at the place – such acts as Billy Corgan, front man for the Smashing Pumpkins, along with Dave Navarro, the Cold War Kids, Foster the People and Chris Robinson, founder of the Black Crowes. All acts that directly or indirectly typically would play venues closer to the Save Mart Center in Fresno were drawn to the small-town Central California venue. Marc and crew are dedicated to continuing this trend to bring entertainment that we would normally have to drive hours to see.
But what’s new? What will be done differently through a fresh set of eyes and rekindled spirit? Well, in part, rekindled spirits. Marc’s crew includes two others: Culinary Institute of America New York-trained Tate Darwin, who is in charge of the culinary and mixology magic and culture, and Ryan Sullivan, a local attorney who keeps everything on the tracks.
“Cocktails are American,” Tate says. “Other countries weren’t doing it,” following the statement with a brief history of the craft and its triumphant return of libation after Prohibition. The Cellar Door will be serving such cocktails as God Save the Queen, mixed from red berry Ciroc, Cherry Heering (a Danish liqueur flavored with cherry), lemon, blood orange and Grenadine. Or order a Sugar Magnolia: Maker’s Mark, lemon, Disaronno and Aperol (an Italian apertif). The creative drink menu is captivating by description and will certainly offera taste of the Old World born anew.
The next addition comes from the Cellar Door’s menu. Huge flavors and options coming out of a small, late-night kitchen, supplied in part by Visalia’s farmers market. Order a Mongolian Beef Empanada or the Rosemary Chicken Salad Cups. You can get side dishes like Crispy Szechwan Green Beans (which apparently are becoming the talk of the town) or a reboot of the classic Tater-Tot, found in the Tot-Choes, a fusion of nachos meets tots. For other tastes of Americana-reinvented cuisines, a hot-dog menu has been created, with red-hots such as the Maui’s Revenge, a hot-link with pineapple rings, spicy barbecue sauce and house-made bacon bits. Or the Porter-Bello Philly, made with portobello mushrooms, red and green bell peppers, and onions sautéed in a Barrelhouse porter sauce.
Marc doesn’t exactly know how the Cellar Door got its name. He assumes that it comes from the fact that when it originally opened, it was a wine bar, complete with a solid and stocked working wine cellar below street level.
What’s most important to him is that the place is available to represent all in the community. They recently hosted a musical venue to benefit employees affected by the downtown fires. The need for the event was summed up nicely by Marc’s wife Amy, who says, “Our downtown is family.”
Regardless of the name’s origin, it surely will grow into the other mystic aspects of the property, and the vibe that it puts out in music, spirits, art, food and memories. The Cellar Door – it’s beautiful, isn’t it? And it’s all ours.