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The Imperial House's Piano Man Sings His Song

San Diego's favorite entertainer shares his story.

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Welcome to Lifers, an Eater feature that shares stories from the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives. For this Classics Week edition, we interview The Imperial House's master of the ivories, Rick Lyon.

Q: How long have you been in San Diego?

A: I came out here in 1966 for Navy boot camp, right out of high school. After I got out of the Navy, I just stayed here. I'd started playing in local clubs and beach bars while I was still in the Navy; I was playing guitar back then. It was a long time before I started played the keyboards, but I'd played the accordion when I was a kid so I had some knowledge of it.

Q: When did you transition to the keyboard?

A: Back in the 80s, I was in a Latin trio and the leader of band suggested that I might get a keyboard and play some of the horn and string parts on it, so I bought a little Casio keyboard at Kmart. After that, I bought a bigger keyboard and just switched over because a keyboard can do everything. I didn't need a drummer or a bass player, I was a one man band. I started doing private parties, got into some smaller clubs and then the local casinos. I got this job at The Imperial House in 2002.

Q: What's your playing schedule there?

A: I'm playing Fridays and Saturday nights through February but I won't know until the end of February what my new schedule is because they give it to me month by month. We have a Sweetheart Valentine's Day dinner dance on February 14 and I'll be playing a five hour shift that night.

Q: What is it about The Imperial House that's kept you there through the years?

A: I've got my crowd up there. If you look on Yelp, I've got my own page. I started there with kind of an older crowd but for some reason, I have no idea why, the hipsters started coming in. They just started packing the place; for five or six years, I had a packed house every Friday and Saturday. The best thing about The Imperial House is that there's no cover charge and the drinks are really good and not as expensive as the Gaslamp. People like the old school atmosphere, the place has been there since 1968 and they haven't really done any remodeling to change it.

Q: What's your favorite music to play and what artist or song is most often requested?

A: I like classic rock from the 60s and 70s. I think the singer-songwriter stuff, like Billy Joel, Elton John, Cat Stevens, Neil Young. People request a lot of Billy Joel and Elton John. I get requests for Journey, Chicago, David Bowie, Neil Diamond. Sing-along stuff is popular — the pina colada song, Copacabana by Barry Manilow.

Q: What's the craziest thing you've seen happen in the bar?

A: I've had some celebrities come in; Robin Thicke was there last year and Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul and Mary came in last November.

Q: Do you ever eat in The Imperial House restaurant?

A: I've eaten there a few times, it's pretty good. I'm allowed a meal every time I work but I usually take something to go, like chicken tacos or a club sandwich.

Q: Where do you eat late at night, after you play?

A: I have a regular place that I go for breakfast when I get off, it's called Rudford's Diner over on El Cajon Boulevard. It opened in 1949 and I've been going there since 1969. They have really good food there, I usually order the chicken fried steak or the steak and eggs. Everything's homemade there, the potatoes are cut from scratch and the chicken fried steak isn't processed and frozen like Denny's or IHOP.

Q: How long do you hope to keep performing?

A: I'll be there as long as they keep me. My following knows they can find me there. I'm researching a few other places around town too, for other days of the week. I'm trying to get a Thursday night thing going.

Imperial House

505 Kalmia St, San Diego, CA 92101 (619) 234-3525