In its heyday after the war, Chinatown was a nighthawk’s heaven. Bars, nightclubs, betting parlors and all-night restaurants drew movie stars, gamblers and assorted sharpies looking for adventure or a friendly face. Most of the scene is gone now, but Chinatown is still a little of a 1950s fantasy, where all the hep cats and waitresses are named Frankie and Johnnie and Bobby, and you can still find a bar stool with some memories.
At Hop Louie, the jukebox still spins 45s at seven plays for a dollar: Glenn Miller, Fats Waller, Sinatra, Billie Holiday, the Mills Brothers, Ella.
The dance floor may be largely empty, but some nights you might see a few people engaged in a friendly game of cards, while in the background Bull Moose Jackson sings “Bowlegged Woman.”
Bill the bartender has been around for 10 years and says the bar is pretty quiet now. “People come down from the restaurant upstairs to smoke. That’s about it.”
There are only three customers on a Sunday evening at 10 o’clock. A woman who drops a quarter to hear “Sentimental Journey” and “In the Mood,” a guy with a mustache smoking a pipe, and Johnny Woo, 60, a waiter at Jade West who has been going to bars in Chinatown since he was 17. “I’m one of the few die-hards still active in Chinatown, still going out drinking,” he reflects.
Down the street at the Grand Star, a pretty waitress named Bobby Sun will make sure you have enough beer in your belly to get up for the karaoke Pete Gonzales spins Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and if you still need courage, she’ll sing a few numbers herself to show you how it’s done. It’s difficult to resist her, though the truly timid can still have a good time listening to old-timers from the neighborhood sing Chinese ballads.
“A nightclub called the Rice Bowl used to be next door. During the war they had people hanging from the rafters,” says Frank Quon, an architect whose family has owned and operated the Grand Star since the 1940s. Yui Hai “Mama” Quon, 97, still makes it in on Saturday nights.
“We had Chinatown long before Disney ever thought of Disneyland,” says Frank Quon.
On Fridays and Saturdays, a jazz trio takes over the stage at the Grand Star. “Tets Bessho, Delbert Hill and Yasuko Kuwano--they play the best jazz you ever want to hear,” says Quon. “Delbert has been playing the clarinet since Moses. Tets is 71 years old, but he looks 50. He had a band in the internment camp during the war, and when he got out he formed the first all-Oriental jazz band.”
On your way home, stop at the Wishing Well, just west of Hop Louie. At this elaborate, multihued construction, you can aim your pennies at such staples as Wealth, Vacation, Promotion, Luck, Long Life and Happy.
Where: Hop Louie, 950 Mei Ling Way, (213) 628-4424. Grand Star, 943 Sun Mun Way, (213) 626-2285.
When: Hop Louie is open nightly until 2 a.m. Grand Star is open nightly until 1 a.m.
Cost: No cover. Drinks $2.50 and up. Food served in both dining rooms until 10 p.m.