From an outsider's perspective, The Malelani Cafe in Ventnor looks like a typical coffee shop and eatery. It's a quaint space with a handful of varied-sized wooden tables and burnt orange walls covered in locally made artwork, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But to its regulars, Malelani's is much more than a place to come to eat. It's a mecca for local artists - musicians, comedians and poets - to come together to share their talents, support each other and enjoy a slice of the local arts scene.
Malelani's is one of a handful of venues in the surrounding Atlantic City area to host a regular lineup of local, up-and-coming, independent musicians, and it's the only location in Ventnor.
The cafe's owner and head chef, George Drakopoulos, opened the restaurant five years ago with the idea of using the space to highlight and promote local artists.
Drakopoulos is a native of South Africa and says that, in his country, cafes are more of a social gathering place, like a bar, offering an array of entertainment and other events.
"In South Africa, the pubs are for guys who want to drink beer and watch sports, the nightclubs are for people who want to go out dancing and cafes are the in-between," he says. "It's a place to go before and after the clubs. They have live music, DJs, drinks. They host fashion shows and art shows, people can smoke cigars or hookah. It's a much livelier scene."
That's the concept he was aiming for with Malelani's, named for the South African Tswana word "malelane," meaning place of palms.
During the dinner hours and after the kitchen closes, the focus turns to the entertainment. Coffee and dessert are still available for purchase after the kitchen closes and BYO alcohol is always an option.
Malelani's hosts a weekly open-mic night from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursdays, live music performances by locals 7 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and a reggae night 7 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
There's also an occasional comedy night, featuring local, up-and-coming acts, with a show Sunday, Feb. 24, replacing its weekly reggae night. This week's comedy show will include two, back-to-back sets of the same show, the first from 6 to 8 p.m. and the other 8 to 10 p.m.
Since the space is small, Drakopoulos decided to host two of the same shows to accommodate more people. Tickets are $5 with profits benefiting the comedians.
The first show will be headlined by Omar Scruggs, featuring Ryan Martin and Chris Librizzi, and the second headlined by Dupree Scruggs, again featuring Ryan Martin and Chris Librizzi. There is limited seating and advanced tickets can be purchased at the cafe.
Before comedy hits the stage Sunday, guests can enjoy music by local favorite Rebecca Nell from 2 to 6 p.m. Drakopoulos says whenever she comes to town she "packs the house."
Malelani's also hosts monthly art shows as an additional way to promote local artists. Its walls are used to showcase the artwork and there's a monthly meet-the-artist opening on the first Sunday evening of each month. Most work is for sale.
But the cafe really thrives on its food sales, Drakopoulos says, with the art and music being a bonus. He is a trained chef who takes pride in his cuisine.
"Though I'm a huge fan of music, I'm not a musician," he says. "My talents are more in my cooking. I make my money from my food and that's how I can have the music."
Thursday, Feb. 21: Open mic night 7 to 10 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 22: Rick Serren, 7 to 10 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 23: Ken Shiles, 7 to 10 p.m.
Sunday, Feb. 24: Rebecca Nell, 2 to 6 p.m.; Comedy Night, 6 to 8 p.m. and 8 to 10 p.m. $5 cover.