T hwock, clickety thud-thud-thuddy click. It's an alluring sound--unless, I suppose, you think the noble game of billiards is either a semi-criminal activity or just a variety of table croquet.
The striking young woman in the studded leather jacket evidently likes it. She strolls serenely among the thwocking, clicking pool tables at the Hollywood Athletic Club, leading a burly young man in a matching jacket who may or may not resent the looks she's getting. It's hard to read an expression behind dark glasses that size.
They're the only people dressed in anything like tough-customer gear, though, and it's obviously just costume with them--there's no speck of motorcycle grease on their sparkling stone-washed jeans. This is the Hollywood Athletic club, after all; dress as you please. Formal black T-shirts with sport jackets are more typical.
The Hollywood Athletic Club building has been around since 1924, but only recently has this imposing, historic structure been revitalized as an athletic club, with the accent on "club." A place called Drones Bar & Grill is part of the operation, both for clubbiness' sake and to draw a connection with the London billiards club Drones, of which one of the owners was a co-founder. The reference to Drones Club, Bertie Wooster's haunt in P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories, is not at all accidental.
Remodeling has taken the high road, emphasizing the austere grandeur of the building rather than its gaudy associations with old Hollywood. Entering from Hudson Street, you find on your left an immense room that must have the highest ceiling of any pool hall in the country, stripped clear down (or up) to the hangar-like roof vault. The exposed air ducts are not the usual sort that snake their way across the room; they sprout from the corners like giant microphones.
This is a serious billiards room with about 30 brand-new tables, each in its own pool of light, and it's generally crowded with people who can't be distracted from their games by anything less than a striking woman in a studded leather jacket. To the right of the entrance is a quieter room with a cross-vaulted Romanesque ceiling that feels like the secret pool hall in the catacombs of Rome.
Drones itself is just beyond, in a warmer, woodier room with ceiling beams painted in the Renaissance floral patterns L.A. admired in the '20s. The bar has a huge back-bar mirror topped with an impressive, if faintly absurd, wooden pediment and features a collection of premium liquor, including a half-dozen grappas. You can buy a fairly wide selection of bar snacks there from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
In the restaurant part of the room, former 72 Market Street sous-chef Peter DeLucca provides a version of bar and grill food with California touches. An appetizer of crab cakes, for instance, comes in a sauce dosed with horseradish. In the herb-happy Caesar salad, anchovies have apparently been replaced with an equivalent quantity of thyme. When you order lamb chops, you get apples as well--tart little green apples fried in butter; not an absurd garnish, though probably not the next trend, either.
On the other hand, the appetizer chili is the kind most often entered in chili contests: ground beef, tomatoes, kidney beans and lots of cumin. It has a certain homey appeal, and you get a substantial plate of it. The best appetizer is sweet mussels and baby clams in white wine sauce; the calamari pledge allegiance to the wrinkled and crunchy school, and the chicken fingers come in a rather oily breading.
Even at dinner there are sandwiches: a burger, a grilled cheese . . . make that a grilled Brie, and don't order it for me, because the bitterness of Brie seems to increase when it melts. Fans of crunchy French fries will be pleased that the fries that come with sandwiches are virtually thick-cut shoestring potatoes.
The best pasta I've had was a special of rotini with salmon, chopped tomatoes and "crunchy onions," which really were crunchy. Shrimp diavolo, though not listed as a pasta entree, is noodles with OK fried shrimp, tossed with oil and a surprising amount of red pepper. But mostly the pastas are by the '80s book, for good or ill. In the fettuccine with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, Gorgonzola and pine nuts, for instance, the Gorgonzola is a bit too funky for its company.
The best entree has to be the grilled half chicken with garlic and rosemary. It's a sizable browned bird sitting on a clutch of about a dozen half-roasted garlic cloves. These easily divide the sheep from the goats among garlic-lovers; the sheep will find them too strong.
Sometimes the dessert selection might include something like a cake with strawberry filling and white chocolate frosting, but usually it revolves around three items. There will be key lime pie, sometimes made with lemon instead of lime, with a slightly stiff crust and a lot of whipped cream, and a flourless chocolate cake: less mushy and depraved than most of its cousins and with a strong chocolate (rather, cocoa) flavor.
The cream of the dessert menu--probably of Drones menu altogether--is the "Tennessee pie." It's filled with coconut, pecans and chocolate bits, served warm. It's really luscious, like a warm macaroon oozing just-melted chocolate.
It's great to see this grand old building in use again, and Hollywood should be grateful for Drones' bar food, served as it is when just about everything but fast food is closed. There may be a contradiction in the idea of billiards club cuisine, though; some of the players drift over to the bar from time to time, but the sit-down diners seem to come in just for dinner.
Of course, maybe they don't. Maybe they come for the music. Thwock, clickety-click clickety-thuddety-click.
Drones Bar & Grill
6525 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (213) 962-6600.
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 6-11 p.m. daily. Dinner for two, food only, $32-$55.
Suggested dishes: chili, $5; mussels and clams, $6.75; spiral pasta with salmon and crunchy onions, $12.50; grilled chicken, $13; Tennessee pie, $4.50.