Head bowed, Michael Eisenberg stood outside his Thunder Roadhouse, the stylized Sunset Strip biker bar whose allure to the show-business biker crowd tried to turn Hollywood into Harleywood.
Hours earlier Wednesday, a flash fire had gutted the hip, 4-year-old landmark that helped spark a renaissance of the strip’s western end.
The blaze, which firefighters said apparently was started by an electrical short, caused more than $500,000 in damage and scorched dozens of motorcycle-themed collectibles, including Harley-Davidson bar seats and a classic 1920 Indian cycle that served as the eatery’s centerpiece.
No one was injured in the blaze, which occurred shortly after the 1 a.m. closing of the West Hollywood haunt, co-owned by actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and country singer Dwight Yoakam.
At noon, managing partner Eisenberg watched as restaurant workers hammered plywood over the entrance, next to the half of a Harley mounted to look as if it is crashing through the wall and the sign that reads “Wanted: All Clean Harley-Davidsons. Dead or Alive. Inquire Within.”
“This is the worst day of my life,” he said. “It took years to build this place, to get things just the way we wanted them.”
He motioned toward the door. “Now this is all that’s left of the Thunder Roadhouse.”
The fire at the bar at 8363 W. Sunset Blvd. was put out in about 40 minutes by 50 county and 25 city firefighters, who stopped the flames from spreading to an adjacent clothing store.
Officials said the fire was spotted by two employees in the building as it smoldered, then flashed and blew out the windows out in a deafening explosion.
Investigators Wednesday ruled out arson as a cause.
“We’re working with two arson investigators from Sheriff’s Department and we’re all in accordance that it was an accidental fire,” said Capt. Bill Franklin of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s arson investigation unit. “The fire appears to have been caused by an electrical malfunction in a wire running to a neon light fixture.”
While the Thunder Roadhouse was stocked with images of the cult ‘60s movie “Easy Rider,” which made cultural icons of Fonda and Hopper, it was actually the world’s most hygienic biker bar, nestled among a cluster of motorcycle-themed boutiques. Its rustic clapboard exterior had the hip cache of a Hard Rock Cafe with the quaint touch of the old mercantile store in “Little House on the Prairie.”
Combining tourist glitz with biker cool, the place was a hangout for so-called RUBs (rich urban bikers): producers, actors, doctors and others who in some cases didn’t know they were interested in motorcycles until they had more money than they knew how to spend. (The bikes parked outside sold for up to $30,000.)
“We mixed bikers with the suit crowd,” Eisenberg said. “We took what could have been one of the worst scenes in town and made it work. There was never any fights in the parking lot. Nobody ever got hurt here.”
Inside, the restaurant was blackened. The dark, knotty-pine interior--with booths upholstered in real, buttery-soft leather, chandeliers made of humpy Harley gas tanks, lamps made from racing trophies--was all scorched and melted and otherworldly.
The only light came from the sun’s rays that fell through a hole in the ceiling. On a wall behind the bar, a clock read 1:21 a.m., “the moment the fire got too hot in here to handle,” Eisenberg said.
“All of this stuff was priceless stuff we had to wrest out of people’s collections,” he said. “We’ll never be able to replace it.”
Mario Pikus, a local sculptor and motorcycle owner who recently had sponsored Monday night “Bike Nights” at the bar, as well as Wednesday night “Bikers Playing Chess” gatherings, said he cried when he heard the news of the fire.
“I went over to the bar as soon as I heard,” said Pikus, who ate dinner at the Roadhouse on Tuesday. “It was devastating. The place was a total meltdown. It’s pretty sad to see your second home totally destroyed.”
Eisenberg said the fire came at the worst time, the height of the summer tourist season when the Roadhouse was primed to take advantage of the fallout from four hotels--and 1,000 hotel rooms--within walking distance.
The owner said he received calls from the House of Blues and nearby hotels Wednesday with offers to hire some of the 60 Roadhouse staffers now out of work.
That is, until the Thunder Roadhouse rebuilds. “We’re going to get started on the rebuild today, if we can,” Eisenberg said.
Then he kicked a pile of soot. “A fire is a crazy thing, isn’t it?” he said, almost to himself. “It can turn a dream into ashes.”