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How Sean McClain Turned Bandito’s Burrito Lounge Into a Punk-Rock Institution

The restaurant's 20th birthday celebration is April 8.



Voodoo Idol, Telstar and Blue Moon as names of burritos on a menu are the first clue that a musician was involved in their creation 20 years ago.

The musician and cook who blended a passion for food with music is Sean McClain of Bandito’s Burrito Lounge, a place he helped open with partners in 1997, and one that went on to win Style’s best new restaurant award that year for its fresh take on Mexi-Cali cuisine.

His path to restaurant ownership was as circuitous as any restaurateur’s: working in scores of Virginia Beach restaurants while young, a brief stint at Virginia Commonwealth University in the sculpture program, starting the rockabilly band Chrome Daddy Disco and moving to Washington to be a rock star, only to return, as so many do.

The band has lasted 20 years and still plays out about five times a year. But McClain, the singer and frontman, says it’s more about members’ pleasure in practicing and hanging out together these days, than how many shows they play. “I’ve been in bands my whole life,” he says. “It just feels good to play music.”

He worked at Sidewalk Café beginning the day it opened, and it was through owner Johnny Giavos that he heard about a cheap deal on a Cary Street property near Virginia Commonwealth University. With a partner, he opened Bandito’s in March 1997. In 2002, tired of less-than-reliable plumbing, McClain moved Bandito’s to its current location in the Museum District, reveling in having a parking lot and room to expand.

In 2009, he bought out his partner, leaving him sole owner.

“I’m a control freak, so I really like being the only owner,” he says from a booth at Bandito’s next to an open window. “I know I’m always going to make a fair decision. Hey, it’s worked so far”

The proof is in the longevity of his staff members, whose tenures range from 15 to 17 years and his main cook coming out on top with 18 and a half. “We’ve got people here 10, 12 years and they’re not even long-timers,” he jokes.

McClain likens Bandito’s to “a Mexican Joe’s Inn,” a comparison he welcomes, describing it as a niche place with personality, but above all, a comfort zone. For aging punk rockers — a group in which he proudly includes himself — it’s also become a venerable music venue.

Determined to promote the music he loves, McClain launched Punk Rock Sunday Night, a free show on what’s often less of a happening night for music. Sometimes it features local cutting-edge bands and other times there are old-school national punk bands such as the Dickies, Agent Orange, Meat Men, TSOL and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys.

“The thing I love about Sean is that when it comes to his restaurant, his band bookings, his own music — really, every aspect of his life — he bases his decisions on what he sees as authentic, and on what makes him happy,” says longtime friend Jim Wark, a bandmate in Chrome Daddy Disco. 

Last year, Bandito’s was host to Messer Chups, an experimental surf band from Russia in one of its first performances in America. Wednesdays are karaoke nights, with popular DJ-led dance parties on Fridays and Saturdays.

That love of music extends to the 20th-anniversary celebration the restaurant is throwing for itself and the public April 8, with Mikrowaves, Red Hot Lava Men, Lady God and the Poison Ivy League taking the outdoor stage to perform all afternoon. Adding to the party vibe will be an outdoor bar and tables, a DJ booth and a bounce house to keep the little ones occupied. As a father, McClain considers such things now.

Two decades ago, after naming the burritos, the kitchen made them for the first time on the first day of business. “We learned a lot on the fly,” McClain says, laughing.

Now, after 20 years, he has 13 more left on his lease, so the plan is to perpetuate the restaurant for some time to come.

“I appreciate this town letting me stick around this long,” he says. “It feels like we’re a bunch of teenagers playing grown-up. And if I’m the boss, there is no boss.” S

Bandito’s 20th birthday celebration will be held from noon to 6 p.m. April 8, at 2905 Patterson Ave.


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