Requiem For The Onyx Cafe
I’m digging into my duck confit at Cafe Figaro on North Vermont Avenue, sipping a Pinot Noir, and it’s only vaguely weird. This used to be the Onyx Cafe, a scribbling, strumming, chain-smoking stew of artists, skater kids, conspiracy mongers and other fringe characters. But at the tres swank Figaro, they’ve done an impressive job of obliterating any vestige of my once-beloved haunt. That pitted concrete floor that was “cleaned” every year or so by having a coat of gray paint spilled over it is now a muted checkerboard of yellow and red clay tiles. Gone are the fruit flies over the bakery case, the mythically proportioned roaches and the jumble of mismatched chairs and tables that characterized this spot in the days--10 years worth--when I guzzled gallons of apathetically prepared coffee and hung out there every second of my free and not-so-free time.
As the ‘80s became the ‘90s, alternative culture become Alternative, and more and more people “discovered” our funky Los Feliz/Silver Lake neighborhood. Gradually, a once-moribund strip of real estate started fetching top dollar, until, of course, it eventually priced out the little coffeehouse that started it all. The rent was adjusted and voila, Cafe Figaro.
While the Onyx’s Boho vibe evolved organically and was often (hyperbolically, I’ll admit) compared to Paris in the ‘20s, the Figaro seems literally transplanted from France--the cuisine, the service, the wine, even the oh-so-petite Coke bottles. I would’ve checked it out sooner except, a few months after it opened, the ultra-Gallic staff was rejiggered. The Figaro closed for a number of weeks while a more tolerable French-lite staff was hired. After the reopening, I waited for the place to hit its stride, then made a reservation.
The Onyx was barely a business; the regulars were charged on a sliding scale that often slid to zero. Tonight’s dinner for two will come out to $111, plus tip. What’s remarkable (besides the fact that I can cover it) is how tasty I find the confit even if I do feel like I’m chewing on the corpse of my once-favorite scene.
I GREW UP IN AN ORTHODOX JEWISH ENCLAVE IN BROOKLYN. From the moment I was old enough to realize that I was being raised to get married, make money, have kids and settle down near a temple where I could spend my Saturdays with other people who’d done the same, I dreamed of escape. In 1983, I moved to L.A.
Upon my arrival, I tried to figure out where in this urban sprawl I belonged. I spent the ‘80s drifting eastward, chasing wisps of scenes, looking for a place where the people who didn’t fit in fit in. That continued until I walked into this crazy coffeehouse with blue, yellow and red Formica tables and Fiestaware cups and teapots.
This was still the “old” Onyx, next to the Vista Theater on Sunset Drive, which owner John Leech and then-partner Fumiko Robinson opened in 1982. Their idea was to start a neighborhood coffeehouse like the ones they’d seen in San Francisco. I discovered it in 1987, but I didn’t become an Onyx fixture until two years later, after it had re-established itself on Vermont Avenue.
The Onyx did not filter out the street experience. You could hang out there all day (and many of us did) and not buy a thing. It was managed with such passivity that even the homeless and crack-addicted would make themselves at home. Only the most violent or malodorous were forced to leave.
The clientele, employees and management shared a refreshing hostility toward condos, “tony” (the buzzword back then) restaurants, BMWs and anything to do with the film industry. People were talking, reading, loafing and playing chess. How radical in those pre-espresso-chic days to find a social atmosphere that wasn’t dumbed down with alcohol (although brown-bagging wasn’t exactly unheard of). It also occurred to me that this wouldn’t be a bad place to pick up girls.
I loved Vermont Avenue, its brick apartment buildings, shoe stores, locksmith, the Armenian grocery on the corner. I moved to a $450-a-month apartment in Silver Lake and kissed West-of-Highland goodbye. For the next 10 years, I couldn’t pass Vermont without succumbing to the urge to stop in at the Onyx and “see if anything was happening.”
I didn’t understand what “happenings” were until I experienced them at the Onyx. Sometimes they were planned events, such as the weekend when the place was redecorated to resemble a ‘50s Beat cafe. Other times, the happenings were spontaneous eruptions, like the raucous percussion jams or simply breathtaking bits of human drama that only made sense if you were already familiar with the characters involved. Anything, no matter how crazy, could be tried here. With a friend, I once published the work of an old psychiatric patient who would slave for hours writing a single elegant line such as “money is the only thing we can all agree on.” At the signing of “A Utopia of the Everyday Kind,” published via MacIntosh and photocopy machine, we sold out our full run of 100 at $1 each.
TIME WAS SWALLOWED IN A VEGAS-LIKE VORTEX. TEN MINUTES would melt into an hour, all night, your whole life. It’s easy to say Onyx and slacker in the same breath, but the place did launch Beck and others. I, too, entered the place a dabbler, but I gradually realized that applying myself to freelance writing would be the most logical way to subsidize a life where I could hang out in coffee shops.
To this day, much of my social world comes from people I met through the Onyx. There were weddings, births and deaths. And gossip. When the Northridge quake jolted us awake, we drove past the Onyx to see if it was OK. In one of his finest moments, Chief (our nickname for Leech) defied the curfew and kept the cafe open after hours during the L.A. riots.
With the Onyx established on Vermont, more consciously hip establishments followed. Hipsters rediscovered the Dresden Room, where for 20 years prior, Marty & Elayne had crooned to a bare room. In 1993, the Derby opened, followed by the movie “Swingers” and lounge chic. It was cool for a while. Fresh blood. People (well, girls) we dubbed the “Silver Lake Social Climbers,” who had read about the neighborhood first in the underground rags, then in Details and Vanity Fair, came to the Onyx and ordered a latte.
While it was hard not to feel vindicated, few were ignorant of the tendency for hip fringe scenes to get co-opted. That “uh-oh” moment came in 1997. The old greasy spoon, George’s, had closed the previous year. This genuine ‘50s article was stripped down and gussied up as the ersatz retro-diner Fred 62. What we outcasts from the ‘80s had created in an overlooked cranny of Los Angeles had become “the hot new thing.” The Range Rover crowd not only commuted here, they moved in. Rents rose. There was a time that the first question people asked about the neighborhood was, “Is it safe?” Now we had neighbors such as Madonna, who required a certain standard of retail services.
The new merchants and neighbors began to be less and less enamored of the funky little coffeehouse and the element it attracted. But the element had changed also. The artists, the people with the creative energy, gradually drifted away, leaving only the hangers-on (barnacles, I called them). The entry was often a gantlet of steely-eyed losers, some downright sinister.
Magazines still unfailingly mentioned the Onyx in their write-ups of the “Silver Lake Scene,” but when the tourists arrived, they’d look around with a puzzled expression and go: “This?!”
I should’ve left, too. By this time, I had a writing career going. But a mix of sentimentality, laziness (anything is better than staying home and trying to write) and morbid fascination kept me coming back. Sure, I caught the occasional spark of the old magic, but it was dulled by the thickening layers of muck. As it approached entropy, the Onyx was like a lovable dog gone old and arthritic. Someone had to have the heart to put it down, which happened when the lease expired in November 1998.
The vacant storefront went through various stages: the shrine, the post-mortems, followed by the fliers and graffiti. Contractor types came in and out, transforming the spot. Almost a year after the Onyx closed, Cafe Figaro opened. As everyone feared, yuppie chow had arrived.
People griped, but it wasn’t really the Onyx that was the victim; an entire neighborhood, even an era were gone. It’s possible to sit outside with a cup of joe at the adjacent Boulangerie, but even though I’m not the poor scrabbler I once was, I feel out of place collaborating with the Parisian pomp of the spiffily aproned waiter with the French accent.
A blander and less elitist coffeehouse opened down the street to accommodate the Onyx’s dazed refugees, but no thank you to that. Ironically, I still squander many hours at a nearby cafe owned by the Cafe Figaro folks. It has a relaxed vibe and even tolerates (for better or worse) a touch of slack. Of course, it’s got none of the magic that made the Onyx so addictive. That magic was a product of a particular time, and those who haven’t moved on seem the worse for it. If anything, I wish the Onyx hadn’t sullied its legacy by sputtering on as long as it did. It irks me to hear, as I do periodically, some of the newly arrived ask, “Didn’t there used to be some dirty coffee shop here?” And I feel like saying, “Yeah, well, if not for that dirty coffee shop. . . .”