Eviction Threatens Onyx in Silver Lake : Novel Cafe Fights for Last Word

Times Staff Writer

Playing a silver- and gold-colored accordion slung over her black-clad frame, Carrie Lauer waited patiently in the smoke-filled cafe for the owner of the theater next door.

She was on her third cup of cappuccino and had almost exhausted her repertoire before Fred Hicks walked by.

Lauer, a librarian at Brand Library in Glendale, regularly plays her music and meets her friends at the Onyx Cafe in Silver Lake.

This night, as she followed Hicks into the Vista Theatre, she had other things on her mind. Hicks holds the master lease on the Onyx, and has been making moves to evict the cafe since last summer. Lauer was there to hand him a petition with 1,100 signatures protesting his plans.


“I said, ‘These are all the people who love and support the Onyx and we don’t want you to close it,’ ” Lauer said when she got back.

“He said nothing. I stared at him and walked away.”

The Onyx Cafe is a tiny storefront espresso bar with cerulean walls that meet at odd angles, a rare sort of eatery for Los Angeles, patrons say.

Hung with art that changes every eight weeks or so and frequented by well-known Los Angeles artists such as Peter Shire, Gary Panter and Cam Slocum, the Onyx is the kind of place where “you’re not herded in to buy their food and drink,” said Julia Stein, whose book of poems, “Under the Ladder to Heaven,” was published in 1984.


“You could buy a cup of coffee and write a novel in here and no one would bother you,” she said. “But yet, you’re with other artists, so you don’t have to be so lonely.”

In August, the owners of the Onyx, John Leech and Fumiko Robinson, received the first of a series of 30-day notices from Hicks. Early this month, Hicks pressed the eviction proceeding--filing an unlawful-detainer complaint.

Carl Shaff II, a Hollywood attorney representing Leech and Robinson, said he has filed an answer to the unlawful-detainer complaint with Los Angeles Municipal Court. A judge is scheduled to hear the case Dec. 29.

Shaff said they will fight the eviction, but believes that his clients’ best hope is to reach a settlement.


Hicks told The Times his reasons for filing the suit are “a private business matter, and I have no further comment.”

His attorney, Steven H. Rosenblit of Huntington Park, did not answer repeated telephone calls from The Times.

The Onyx does not appeal to everyone, but to a certain clientele of writers, artists and musicians it has become something of an institution.

On a recent weekday night, a novel was in progress at the Onyx. In a scene reminiscent of the famous Paris cafes of the 1930s, Larry Kurnarsky, 37, sat writing the third chapter of his book. But in a 1980s update on the classic literary scene, Kurnarsky was writing not with quill, but tapping onto the keyboard of a portable computer perched precariously on a linoleum-topped table.


“I don’t like libraries, I don’t like silence and I don’t like offices,” he said, explaining why he was writing at the Onyx. “It’s like jazz writing in a place like this. It’s improv writing.”

At a table nearby, a woman with rose-colored hair played backgammon with Soren Kenner, a Danish journalist who files stories from Los Angeles to the Copenhagen newspaper Politiken. Under the soft-sculpture works of artist Lunna Menoh, Victoria Hortman, a theater director, talked animatedly with someone she had just met.

Caters to Artists

“It’s a good place to talk, but also a good place to meditate,” she said. “I think artists are lonely people in general. They’re loners, and this place caters to that.”


Leech, born in Surrey, England, opened the Onyx with Robinson after he moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 1982. The bearded, energetic Leech, wearing a paisley ascot, Oxford cloth shirt and jeans, spent a recent night at the Onyx moving between tables serving pastries on brightly colored, Fiesta-style flatware and making coffee, tea and egg creams from behind a converted sushi bar.

Robinson, an architect, designed the interior of the Onyx. The cafe today has a sort of haphazard charm, patrons say. The black-and-white tile floors are scuffed, the vibrant flatware is chipped and extra chairs are stacked against the wall--put to use constantly when groups of friends expand.

“Closing down this place would be a complete disaster,” Kurnarsky said. “Most places like this are plagued by being ‘cool.’ This is one of the most real places in L. A. This place is not ‘cool,’ and I’d like it to stay that way.”

Leech describes the Onyx, which is open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays and to 4 a.m. on weekends, as “an old-fashioned, European kind of hangout,” where the most expensive item on the menu sells for $2.75.


It is named after The Onyx Club, a famous 1930s jazz club on New York’s West 57th Street. Musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington played in the Harlem club. Leech plays recordings of the period’s music in his cafe.

Late at night, while everything else on the dark corner of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Drive closes down, the cafe comes alive. A Safeway, a vacant lot and a parking lot occupy the other corners of the intersection.

Establishments with the quirky character of the Onyx are hard to come by in Los Angeles, Al Nodal, director of the Otis / Parsons Gallery, said.

The Go Between, a Silver Lake coffeehouse also popular with artists, closed last year. Artists say there are only about 10 places in Los Angeles similar to the Onyx.


The few they consistently name are spread throughout the city. The Pick-Me-Up on La Brea Avenue and Gasoline Alley on Melrose Boulevard in West Hollywood are popular, as is the Pasadena Coffeehouse and a few cafes in Venice. “There are very few places in L.A. that are just sort of unstructured, real bohemian-style social gathering spots for artists, and the Onyx is one of them,” Nodal said. “It’s sort of a fledgling, small-arts organization under the guise of a cafe.”

Peter Shire, a well-known Los Angeles artist linked closely with Memphis, an avante garde furniture-design group from Milan, Italy, has shown his works at the Onyx twice. The first show displayed Shire’s exuberantly colored teapots, suspended from the ceiling on transparent wire.

“A lot of the reason why I show there is it’s pretty easy going, sort of down-home,” said Shire, who lives in nearby Echo Park. “There are a lot of friends. You’re not running point, you’re not seeing and being seen. It’s kind of relaxing and fun.”

Nodal said art shows in cafes such as the Onyx provide a needed alternative in the art world.


“Any city needs a wide range of venues to experience art, from the Los Angeles County Museum to the Getty to the Onyx,” he said.

“The Onyx has a lot of heart and a lot of soul. That, for my money, is more important than a slick, clean space.”

Leech is out of his element in the high-rise offices of his attorney. But in recent months he has found himself there more often than he wishes. He has been signing papers, worrying about the future of the cafe and wondering if he will win his case.

Conversation has changed a bit at the cafe as well. Now patrons are likely to glance at the petition in one corner and be drawn into conversation about the cafe’s future. Heated conversations about world affairs give way to discussions of tenant law.


Leech says he feels like he is playing for time.

“I don’t think Fred Hicks has any idea what a place like this is all about,” Leech said. “It’s not like any other place. It’s about creativity.”