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1933 Group raises the bar for themed watering holes

Bobby Green has a knack for opening bars in under-the-radar neighborhoods on the brink of gentrification.

Bigfoot Lodge, his take on a mountain cabin, landed in Atwater Village before a swarm of Westsiders headed east. Same with La Cuevita, Spanish for "the little cave," in Highland Park.

Now Green and his partners — clothing manufacturers Dmitry Liberman and Dimitri Komarov — are betting that North Hollywood will be the next haven for young Angelenos priced out of high-rent districts. Their latest restaurant and bar, Idle Hour, opened on a quiet strip in February.

"Somehow we got into opening bars in emerging neighborhoods," said Liberman, perched on a booth at Idle Hour.

The trio's company, 1933 Group, operates nine themed bars and restaurants in the Los Angeles area. They include the Southern-tinged Sassafras in Hollywood and Oldfield's Liquor Room in Culver City.

Green is the creative designer behind the nightspots. His love of Americana propelled him to restore Idle Hour to its former glory, yet another example of a template that has set the group's taverns apart in the city's teeming bar scene.

More entrepreneurs are jumping into the $26-billion night-life industry, inspired by reality TV shows such as "Bar Rescue" and the huge popularity of craft cocktails and local brews. As a result, standing out from the crowd has become a key focus in the last few years, said J.C. Diaz, executive director of the trade group Nightlife Assn.

"We are beginning to notice within the industry that people want an experience," Diaz said. "It's not just the drinks and the food, but the atmosphere. That's what people are really paying for."

Millennials are driving a night-life renaissance; many rely on bars as their principal spot to hang out with friends and meet new people, he said.

"They grew up with Starbucks with free Wi-Fi and drinks," Diaz said. "Now with bars, they can get drinks and food and see the game."

The Idle Hour advertises its distinct vibe starting with its barrel-shaped building, erected in the 1940s at the dawn of Southern California's car culture. Businesses eager to appeal to potential customers driving by put up structures shaped like animals, hats, food — anything but buildings.

In the 1970s, Idle Hour was converted into a flamenco bar called La Cana that included a dance stage inside.

The owner closed it in the 1980s. A cultural-monument designation saved the barrel from demolition.

The partners' love of vintage Los Angeles was well known, so a friend alerted them that the building was coming on the market.

"There was a bidding war," Liberman said. "And we got it."

Using old black-and-white photos as a guide, Idle Hour was restored to what the building looked like in the 1940s. The clock that hangs just above the doorway came from "the clock guy in Burbank," who supplied the exact model that originally hung on the building, Green said.

The back patio holds another example of L.A.'s rich architectural past: a replica of the Bulldog Cafe, which sold tamales and ice cream on Washington Boulevard until the early 1960s. The Petersen Automotive Museum had been displaying the cigar-chomping canine, but when the museum underwent an extensive car-centric remodel, officials called Green to see if he wanted it.

"Our contractors chopped the thing into eight pieces," Liberman said. "That's what we do — we restore vintage L.A. It's kind of our aesthetic."

Their bars have often anticipated the migration of young Angelenos seeking out new neighborhoods and cheaper rents.

Green's first idea for a cabin-like bar tucked into the busy streets of Los Angeles was inspired by the woodsy ambience of David Lynch's '90s cult TV show "Twin Peaks." Back then, the only cool bars in Los Angeles were in Hollywood, even though clusters of musicians and artists lived farther east, Green said.

It took Green three years to find investors to bankroll his idea. Komarov and Liberman were looking to diversify into an industry less volatile than their women's fashion company, Komarov Clothing. (It was started with Komarov's costume-designer mother, Shelley; the three still run it.)

The threesome sunk about $200,000 into the remodel, doing much of the handiwork themselves. They lucked out. These were the days before cocktail culture lifted what drinkers expected from a watering hole. For five years, there was no sign outside Bigfoot Lodge. Waitstaff received no customer service training, and bartenders refused to make drinks they thought were beneath them.

"It was the Skittles era," Green said. "Every drink was lime green or pink. It didn't matter if it was any good, it just had to be brightly colored."

Bigfoot was a success and led to a taxidermy-filled outpost in San Francisco and more bars in L.A.

1933 Group's status was cemented when Bigfoot played a starring role in the Jim Carrey movie "Yes Man." The studio built a life-size replica of the bar on a sound stage, and in a weird case of life imitating art imitating life, Green bought the set and recycled most of it for Bigfoot West, which opened in Culver City in 2009.

"Only in L.A.," Komarov said.

Their success has depended in large part on selecting locations with low rents and keeping a tight watch on the business end. All the bills are paid out of a central office, for example.

Liberman said a huge factor is keeping an eye on potential customers' rents. The goal is to jump into a neighborhood before rents soar.

"Highland Park, when we opened up La Cuevita, the rents were low," he said. "You could still get a one-bedroom apartment for $800, $1,000. Now turn the clock forward, and it's $1,600 for a one bedroom."

In North Hollywood, transplants such as Talan Torriero, 28, say they appreciate having a local watering hole. Torriero, who works in digital marketing, moved to the area this year in search of cheap rent after eight years in West Hollywood.

"It's a neighborhood bar for an up-and-coming neighborhood," Torriero said one recent Sunday.

But 1933 Group has stumbled before.

A themed-to-the-gills spot called Stinkers, which paid homage to trucker dive bars, closed within a year of opening in Silver Lake. The bar featured super-cheap beers and stuffed skunks that blew steam from their rears. It reopened as the more restrained Thirsty Crow.

Green said they misjudged how swiftly the neighborhood was changing. Locals were lining up to buy $8 lattes at new cafes and expensive imported cheeses at gourmet stores.

"It went from 'We're art kids that roam the streets' to 'I just bought a $2-million house in the hills' crowd," he said.

With so many spots popping up to cater to the craft-beer crowd, 1933 Group's bars also had to switch from a nonchalantly cool attitude to one that prized customer service and quality cocktails. Green said the trio made a conscious effort around 2007 to "kill people with kindness."

"Training had to be improved, ingredients had to be fresh, everything was more expensive to make," he said. "We had to change our company."

Their latest rehab venture is called Highland Park Bowl.

The venue was a bowling alley from the late 1930s until the 1980s, when it morphed into a punk club and party spot named Mr. T's. The partners have ripped the stage out, revealing eight vintage lanes. The Spanish Revival building will be restored.

Someday, 1933 Group may try hotels or distilling alcohol. But always with that vintage touch.

"That's always been the goal: Let's create something that doesn't exist that takes customers out of their daily life," Green said. "People will seek that out in the same way people go to Disneyland for a day of escapism."

shan.li@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByShanLi

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