Kalisa's La Ida Cafe closes...

Monterey County Herald, John Steinbeck's Birthday: February 27, 2007

Kalisa Closes...


     "They told me, 'The whole Monterey Peninsula is God's little acre. You will never regret it.'"
So she took her husband's papers and typed in "Fort Ord."
     "Do you realize what you did?" her husband asked her. "You just defrauded the government."
Two weeks later, Moore's husband was one of two soldiers in his unit headed for Fort Ord. They arrived in 1955 and were living on $156 a month, she said.
     To earn extra money, Moore started cooking for a coffee shop in Monterey. But the city discovered that the owners were serving food without a license, and soon she was looking for a new job. That's when she saw a "for rent" sign in the window of La Ida Cafe, the bordello where Eddie the bartender poured all the leftover drinks into the same jug for Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse in "Cannery Row."
     So began Kalisa's. It wasn't always happy-go-lucky and Bohemian magic. Moore said she slept three or four hours a night many years in a row, to send her five children to private school. At one point, her family lived upstairs, she said. But the special times were plentiful, Moore said, including the night in the late 1960s that she met John Steinbeck.
     Moore said he was on his last trip to the Monterey Peninsula and was looking around Cannery Row to see if he could find any of his old friends. He showed up at Kalisa's. "He was very subdued," she said. "He just sat there and sucked in the atmosphere and some good red wine." She and Steinbeck and his friend's son, Dennis Murphy talked through the night -- at least six hours -- though she's not sure now exactly what was said.
     "I was really a little overcome that Steinbeck was here," she said. Steinbeck said he was convinced that nobody would recognize him on Cannery Row or care that he was around, but Moore was certain somebody would. His photo often ran in the newspaper, she said. Once on the street, they couldn't find anybody, so they decided to go to the John Steinbeck Theater down the way. The door to the theater was closed, but a young man was counting cash inside. Moore told him that she owned the restaurant down the street. He didn't look up. Murphy told him he'd written a book that was made into a movie. He still didn't look up. Then Steinbeck told the man, "I'm John Steinbeck."
     "Yeah and I'm the King of China," he said.
     "We all laughed," Moore said. "I really felt bad, though."
     While she only met Steinbeck, who died in 1968, that one night, Moore said many of her customers come to Cannery Row because they are inspired by his writing and she is more than willing to talk to them.
     Cannery Row historian Michael Hemp said that's just one of the reasons Kalisa's will be missed on the Row. "There isn't going to be a place where you can find somebody who knows and is willing to talk about Steinbeck, day or night," Hemp said. In the block containing the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Hemp said, the La Ida Cafe is one of a handful of historic buildings left from Steinbeck's era.
     Other buildings include Ed Ricketts' Lab; the Wing Chong Market, now a gift shop; and Mackerel Jack's Trading Co., which used to be the Lone Star Cafe, another bordello Steinbeck wrote about in "Cannery Row" under the name The Bear Flag, he said. It is also a gift shop these days.
     Four of the buildings -- Ed Ricketts' Lab, the Wing Chong, La Ida's and one of the former Carmel Cannery Company warehouses, now the Cannery Row Antique Mall at 471 Wave St. -- are legally registered as historic buildings, said Kim Cole, senior planner for the city of Monterey.
     The La Ida has housed the longest-running business in the neighborhood, Hemp said. "Nobody on Cannery Row has been in business as long as she has, not Ted Balestreri, not any of those guys," Hemp said. "She's been a step away from closing or from dying so many times over 50 years." And that's the karma of Cannery Row, where cannery barons made "millions on the backs of laborers making 35 cents an hour. No minimum wage, no hours, no retirement, no safety net, no nothing," he said.
"It's been a hell of a place to survive," Hemp said. "It's just been a hard, abusive street. It always has been."
     Moore, he said, has sustained her spot for nearly 50 years simply because she's had to survive, he said.
     "She's been doing it for free for years and scorned by a lot of the business community because she is such a terrible businesswoman," Hemp said. "Anyone who has survived on Cannery Row for 50 years, though, is not a terrible businesswoman. She's a genius."
     Balestreri, another longtime Cannery Row restaurateur and partner in the Cannery Row Co. which owns about 80 percent of Cannery Row, attributes her long run to her personality.
"I don't think Kalisa's mind ever goes to sleep completely," Balestreri said. "She has a certain way of simplifying the most complicated matter."
     Balestreri said he met Kalisa in the 1960s when he was in high school. He laughingly declined to detail any particular times he spent at the cafe in its heyday. "Long before Las Vegas, what happened at Kalisa's stayed at Kalisa's," Balestreri said. He said he's not worried about Cannery Row losing its character or history as Kalisa exits.
     "History's just a word," Balestreri said. "You're history. I'm history. It's color that counts. What makes the history unique on Cannery Row is the cross-section of people." It's not that the colorful people are gone: There are just different colorful people now, he said. "You've got (John) Pisto down here and the Shake boys. Bubba Gump was the first Bubba Gump in all the country," he said. "(Cannery Row) has a way of regenerating itself... We never want to be homogenized. That's the worst thing we could be."
     Next to bronze plaques of John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts and Flora Woods, who ran the Lone Star Cafe, Balestreri said someday he hopes there will be a bust of Kalisa Moore. "I sure hope so," he said.
Fittingly, Kalisa's run ends this evening with a celebration of Steinbeck's birthday. Moore said she's now looking for a place with a kitchen and water where she can feed people and be creative. She's also planning to write down the stories she's collected over her 50 years. But she'll never give up her title.
"Sorry, John Steinbeck. This street is yours, but it's also mine. I am the Queen of Cannery Row," she said. "And I always will be."

But her Cannery Row tradition of Belly Dancing lives on!