Inside Last Stage West BBQ
Ten years after a fire destroyed Atascadero’s Last Stage West, a roadhouse known for live music and mouthwatering barbecue has risen from the ashes on the same spot.
Owned and operated by Tom Passon, Last Stage West BBQ stands on a scenic stretch of Highway 41 between Atascadero and Morro Bay. Signs on the side of the two-story corrugated metal building proclaim the venue’s virtues in white block letters: “LIVE MUSIC.” “BBQ.” “ICE COLD BEER.”
“Eating and music and relaxing are very important (to me),” Passon explained. “It’s the main reason I opened the place.”
On Thursday, Last Stage West BBQ welcomes progressive bluegrass group Chris Jones and The Night Drivers of Nashville, Tenn. They’re performing with fiddle player Jeremy Garrett of The Infamous Stringdusters.
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Josephine Johnson will play there on Jan. 28, the final stop in a Central Coast mini-tour that includes performances at Bang the Drum Brewery in San Luis Obispo, D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars in Paso Robles and Shell Café in Pismo Beach.
“We’re pretty much open to any type of music,” said music booker Dan Mazer, although the focus tends to be on Americana, bluegrass, folk and rock acts with a “calm, peaceful vibe.” “We’re not a loud venue and we’re not a late venue and we’re not a hard liquor venue.”
“If you’re going to bring aggression here, we’re not interested,” he added. “We want happiness. We want peace. We want love.”
The spot where Last Stage West BBQ now stands started life as Halfway Market, owned by Jesse and Mary Lee Carroll from 1948 to 1971. Another couple, Richard and Ange Lefevbre, operated the Halfway Station Store and Restaurant there from 1981 to 1989.
Then, in 1995, country and bluegrass musicians Bob and Carmon Brittain launched Last Stage West.
Passon, who was born in Glendale and raised in the San Fernando Valley, discovered the roadhouse after moving to the Central Coast in 1981. He remembers a venue where the songs and the conversation flowed.
“It was always a unique place where people were friendly and you wouldn’t be hurried in or out the door,” recalled the former financial manager, who’s lived in Cambria and Atascadero. “It was just always fun.”
Unfortunately, a blaze reported in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 2005, gutted the roadhouse. (The venue’s namesake stagecoach survived the flames.)
When the Brittains decided not to rebuild, Passon jumped at the chance to purchase the property.
He’s spent the past decade constructing a quaint, quiet paradise where weary travelers can savor slow-smoked pork ribs and lemon jubilee pie while listening to live music. (Although Thursday’s event is ticketed, most concerts are free.) As Last Stage West BBQ’s website proudly proclaims, “The Place That Burned … Has Returned.”
“This has been a pretty wonderful 10 years,” said Passon, who lives on the property. “Except for the economy, everything has been amazing here.”
Last Stage West BBQ features a bar, an enclosed, heated back patio and a large, lofty seating area with a state-of-the-art sound system and a small stage in one corner. To the right of the building, a brick path leads to a fire pit and a peace garden complete with koi ponds. (The restaurant has a capacity of 46, but Passon has hosted parties for up to 100 people on the property using the outdoor area.
Mazer and Passon acknowledged that Last Stage West BBQ is “a little off the beaten path.”
“A lot of the locals know about it,” Passon said, but it’s out-of-towners who have given it a “world-wide reputation” via online reviews.
“People will come in here and either get it and love it, or just look around and say ‘What is this place?’ and leave,” Mazer said. “We get music geeks. We get the hippies. We get people who love nature. We get … people who have tasted Tom’s barbecue and pies.”
“I come here because it’s the last nice place in town. This is the spot,” said Jeff Germond, a guitarist and bartender at Cambria Pines Lodge. He’s been coming to Last Stage West BBQ regularly for about three years, lured by the combination of good food and good tunes.
“They do have some wonderful musicians here,” added neighbor Mike “Mud” Johnson.
Mazer, a banjo player who performs under the stage name BanjerDan, hosts a weekly bluegrass showcase, “The BanjerDan Show,” on Tuesdays. Although he often performs solo, he’s also played with local luminaries including Amber Cross, Erin Inglish and Kenny Lee Lewis.
In addition, Last Stage West BBQ holds bluegrass jam session on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. “We all have an interest in the original music of the masters of the genre,” said Mazer, who moved to the area from Washington, D.C., in January 2012.
Concerts are broadcast live online at http://laststagewest.net and on the radio on 99.9 FM.
A self-described “music hobbyist” who plays half a dozen instruments, Passon said he’s eager to make Last Stage West BBQ a destination for musicians and music lovers alike. He sometimes takes a break from cooking to accompany visiting bands on the electric drumset he keeps on stage.
“Every night, it’s a party for me,” Passon said.
The Night Drivers
$20, $25 at the door
Last Stage West BBQ, 15050 Morro Road, Atascadero
461-1393 or http://laststagewest.net