Goodby Gorky’s? : Eatery Helped Make Downtown Hip but Owner Says It’s Failing


Gorky’s Cafe and Russian Brewery--the 24-hour-a-day bohemian hangout that helped bring life to the deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles--is on the verge of becoming the next casualty of the central city’s stalled revival.

Fred Powers, who bought the 10-year-old cafeteria on 8th Street at the edge of Skid Row in 1985, says the promise of “Foodski, Funski, Brewski” is no longer luring crowds to the eclectic eatery and he will pull the plug if business does not improve by next month.

Despite years as a mecca for artists, insomniacs, literati and urban adventurers, Gorky’s has fallen victim to what Powers sees as a depressed economy, worsening traffic and a growing perception that downtown is not safe after dark.

“A lot of people, even friends, tell me they don’t want to come down here anymore,” Powers lamented this week, his eyes puffy and his face drawn from 18-hour days of trying to keep the cafe afloat. “If Gorky’s goes, it’s a very sad day for Los Angeles.”


Civic leaders concede that these are difficult times for downtown, which a decade ago was being touted as the city’s next cultural hot spot, with trendy nightclubs, a bustling artists colony and plenty of well-heeled professionals living in redevelopment-funded condos.

Last October, the Los Angeles Theatre Center closed. Many of the artists who flocked to industrial-sized lofts have been priced out. The nightclubs are struggling and some condo-dwellers have begun to lose hope for a slice of sophisticated life in the city’s urban core.

While a few promising ventures remain on the scene, officials say, the demise of Gorky’s would be a bad sign.

“It is a cultural landmark in its own way--an important part of the night-life infrastructure,” said Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of the city Cultural Affairs Department. “The fact that it may close down is definitely a step in the wrong direction.”


City Councilman Michael Woo, a frequent customer of Gorky’s who claims that its apple pie has the lightest crust in town, also was saddened by the news. “Downtown is in a lot of trouble,” he said. “I hope this won’t discourage other pioneer business owners from taking chances on the future.”

Making it in the restaurant business in Los Angeles is no easy task under any circumstances--especially during a recession that has cut across the entire corporate spectrum. No more than 10% of all eating establishments survive even three years, and a full decade might be considered “a pretty good ride,” said Stanley Kyker, executive vice president of the Los Angeles-based California Restaurant Assn.

But to aficionados of Gorky’s, this is not just another restaurant.

“It was kind of a forerunner of bigger and better and more wonderful things that were supposed to come downtown,” said Huell Howser, a reporter for KCET-TV whose “Videolog” series has chronicled life in Los Angeles for the last seven years. “A place like Gorky’s leaving is kind of like admitting defeat. . . . It would really be a blow to the soul of the city.”


For the 45-year-old Powers, whose maternal and paternal grandparents were from Russia, the empire began to crumble about a year ago. The late-night revelers started drying up, forcing him to cut back the restaurant’s 24-hour-a-day schedule. Complaints by customers about panhandlers and other denizens of the street led to a security guard out front.

There was also that embarrassing incident last spring, when Gorky’s held a drawing for a free buffet dinner and the winner gave his 25 tickets to some of the neighborhood’s homeless. When they arrived, the manager refused to serve them. Deluged with complaints, Powers agreed to make soup and sandwiches for 500 at the Fred Jordan Mission.

In the ensuing months, as the economy worsened, it seemed that fewer people were sticking around for a cappuccino or Arctic Ale after work or an evening show. Last week, in a last-ditch effort to keep the downtown cafe solvent, Powers closed another version of the restaurant in Hollywood, which he opened in 1988.

“Every day I ask myself, ‘Should I close the doors? Should I just walk?’ ” said Powers, adding that he has not gotten a salary for the last year and has laid off about 100 people at the two locations. “It’s tearing me up.”


The restaurant, opened in 1981 by former Manual Arts High School librarian Judith Markoff, was named after Russian playwright Maxim Gorky--whose portrait is plastered on every wall, above the quotation: “Mankind! How magnificent! It speaks of pride!”

Early reviews hailed it as an avant-garde cafe for working-class people, where anyone was welcome to sip a cup of coffee for hours or flip through newspaper racks filled with journals such as Artweek.

Under Powers, nightly live performances were added, ranging from bilingual poetry readings to Ethiopian reggae. Then came a brewery, with a daily capacity of 331 gallons, churning out Red Star, Baltic and Imperial suds. Some feared the hip, alternative hangout had become too neon-lit and trendy.

“We started the scene down here and we’re still here,” said Marc Kreisel, owner of nearby Al’s Bar, a longstanding underground watering hole. “The difference is we’re not down here particularly to make the business go,” he said, explaining that his establishment is more concerned with providing a haven for artists than turning a profit.


On a recent afternoon, during Gorky’s daily $4.95 all-you-can-eat-and-drink special, there were 17 customers in the 250-seat cafeteria. The following day, during the lunch rush, most of the booths were filled but the six long communal tables--the site for many a philosophical discussion and new friendship--were empty.

Still, a pleasant ambience filled the room, with classical music on the stereo, sculptures of twisted plastic and chicken wire on the walls and the smell of blintzes, stuffed cabbage and meat-filled pirogi wafting from the open kitchen.

“We tried all the other coffeehouses, but there was too much nonsense there,” said Caroline Stern, 26, as she and TV director Menachem Binetski, 50, sat at a linoleum-topped table, jotting ideas for a screenplay on a sea of note cards. “I hate to borrow from Hemingway, but it’s a clean, well-lighted place.”

A few tables away, Los Angeles Housing Authority Police Lt. Walter McKinney, finishing his ham and cheese omelet, was more blunt.


“It’s better than Denny’s,” he said.