It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. Friday. On West Balboa Boulevard, the street is still quiet, a study in windblown palm trees and paved, empty roadway that’ll soon fill with cars tangled in the nighttime whirl. Along 23rd Street, an open door, wedged between darkened windows and yellow walls. This is Aurora, a onetime-Mediterranean eatery purchased two years ago by Newport Beach local Joe Cerbasi, and now, like the town in which Aurora finds itself, he’s transforming it from the static calm of day to the spirited rush of night.
“We’re hidden in plain sight,” he tells me, explaining that when he first bought Aurora, he was determined to make it more friendly to the locals. “It was a little closed off before,” Joe says.
I’m sitting at the bar, granite-topped and clean, as he pours red wine sangria into a large, glass goblet. With the neon twinkle of holiday lights shimmering in the background, the juice takes on an almost magical glow. But the vinous alchemy is as it should be. Sangria has long been a beloved staple of the Aurora cocktail menu, and Joe has kept up the tradition, with slight alterations.
“I spent some time traveling in Ibiza and came back from Spain with a few sangria recipes,” he says. “I used to work at Newport Beach Brewing Company—I worked my way up from door to management—and decided to start doing Sangria Sunday there, which was really popular and turned out to be one of our busiest afternoons. So, I brought that recipe here and tweaked a few things.”
Today, he serves mango sangrias, watermelon sangrias and flavors that change with the season. “We grow fresh herbs out back and we once did a basil strawberry sangria, and we add fresh mint and rosemary to some of our drinks and dishes,” Joe says.
Along with the Sangria, Joe is upholding another time-honored Aurora staple: lamb chops.
“That’s our most popular dish,” he explains. “It brings people back time and time again. Nobody else around town does lamb chops and if they do, they’re expensive.”
Joe’s lamb chops aren’t just reasonably priced, they’re also juicy, flavorful bites of divinely seasoned perfection. And while the lamb chops are definitely here to stay, Joe is creating several food items that weren’t available prior to his Aurora reign. “Before, the menu was completely Mediterranean-inspired and now it’s similar to a local grill.”
The management style is emblematic of how Joe runs Aurora—change this, fix that but keep what’s working alive. He tells me the previous owners called the place a local living room. Under Joe’s watch, it’s more like a home.
“A lot of the locals come in here and hide out from the madness by the pier,” he says. “They come in, have a drink, talk to some friends. We’re really like a neighborhood hideaway.”
The title, in fact, is so fitting Joe plans to change the name of Aurora to “The Hideaway” in early 2019. With the new name, he’s seeking a reface of the building—one of the oldest on the block—to make it feel more open and airy, though his designs will ensure the character and integrity of the decades-old, historic edifice remains intact.
He also plans to include additional freshness by way of homegrown produce; Joe recently moved to a house in Costa Mesa with a yard big enough to grow even more vegetables and herbs. “I can’t wait to have my own tomatoes,” he tells me. “I will absolutely bring them in here.”
Joe is becoming more and more animated as we speak, smiling, laughing and exuding an intangible love for what he does that no franchised, cookie-cutter establishment could ever hope to recreate.
“The first and second year [I took over], we did an anniversary party and the support from everyone was really what got us through the past two years,” he says. “To see those faces of people who keep coming back here time and time again … that’s what really does it for me.”
Around Balboa Peninsula, Joe is something of a local legend. He’s lived in Newport Beach for the last 25 years, working only in local bars and restaurants, which afforded him the ability to create a strong, loyal network of friends. He was a bartender at Cassidy’s, Blackies and Newport Beach Brewing Company and says he “can’t imagine being anywhere else. This is it.”
Still, Joe isn’t the only Aurora staffer with personal and community ties. His wife, Aliana, works at Aurora and is responsible for making the creative signage displayed around the space. Aliana was pregnant with their now two-year-old son, Joseph, when Joe took over Aurora. (“We had two babies at the same time,” he jokes.)
Kelsey, who works at the bar, also bartends at Blackies.
Blake, who is responsible for revitalizing Aurora’s social media presence (find Aurora on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram), met his fiancé at Aurora. They had their first date there and it’s also where he proposed.
And Sally, a bartender at Beach Ball, comes to Aurora every Sunday and brings with her such a large crowd, she single-handedly turned the ritual into a regular Sunday brunch, complete with bottomless mimosa specials from 10 a.m to 3 p.m. (Other weekly specials include Thirsty Thursday, offering bartenders a special on a drink of their choice, and a happy hour every day from 5 to 7 p.m., which features $2 off wine and beer, $5 pizzas and $5 gyros.)
“I’ve always felt since I’ve been down here that the community of bartenders is like a brotherhood and sisterhood,” Joe says. “We share business back and forth with places like Cassidy’s. We tell people you can get the best burger in town there, and they tell people they can try something different and go get our lamb chops here.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship and part of Joe’s 100%-local ideology that’s fueling so much positive change. Because behind the new food offerings, new marketing and even the new name, is an authentic, decades-brewed passion for the people of Newport Beach. “I don’t want to let the locals down,” he says. “If I let this go, I don’t know what comes next. The community loses this important, little chunk of Newport. I have to push through and that’s why we’re doing everything we can think of … we’re putting up new signs, making it look prettier. If I can get people to come in here and sit down, I can make them believers.”
I leave a little while later, sangria finished, lamb chops eaten to the bone. There’s more people on the streets now, more cars driving, too. And as the afternoon sun fades to all the possibilities of a Friday night, I think how Aurora made a believer out of me.