A preserved specimen of nouveau-Japanese night life from the 1980s, Dinner House M sits on a forgotten stretch of Temple Street overlooking the 101 Freeway, a holdover from a time when Japanese investments and hard-drinking travelers flooded downtown L.A. In the last few years, it found new life as a beloved clubhouse for Echo Park’s burgeoning artistic avant-garde and also earned a reputation for being one of the most legendary after-hours bars in L.A.
It has become such a late-night institution that the recent announcement that Dinner House M would close dismayed the local music and night life scene. According to the Los Angeles Police Department and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, the club is losing its license on June 9 for multiple citations of serving after 2 a.m.
Wednesday will be Dinner House M’s last day.
“I tried,” owner Miki Saito said with considerable pride at lasting more than two decades in L.A.'s cutthroat bar culture. “We made the drinks well, lots of musicians and actors came here, the design was different than most bars in America.”
When asked if she’d ever stayed open past 2 a.m., Saito just rolled her eyes. “No way,” she said, denying that she was losing her license for that, instead citing a rent increase. But Dinner House M’s status among late-partying artists and musicians clearly clashed with California’s relatively conservative bar culture.New York City bars, for instance, are open until 4 a.m., and many major international cities have no last-call laws at all.
Saito launched Dinner House M as a place to house her career as a jazz singer. She moved from Tokyo to San Francisco in 1968 on a one-year contract to sing for the Japanese expat crowd there. A few years later, she got an offer to come to L.A. and sing at Horikawa, one of the city’s first sushi restaurants. She performed Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald covers at clubs and hotels including the Biltmore and married and divorced a pianist who remains a close friend.
In 1987 she took over the lease to a nightclub just northwest of downtown called Akasaka. She renamed it Dinner House M after herself and her sister, Maya Yamate. It was covered in mirrors and featured low-slung bar tops and fluorescent panels shaped like musical notes and piano keys. The bar was built into a hillside, like a secret grotto.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Echo Park area was fairly dangerous, but Saito’s no-guff demeanor made Dinner House M a safe haven for business travelers looking to get out of Little Tokyo and enjoy easygoing piano standards and live jazz. Maya Yamate died in 1992, and as the decade went on the big-spending Japanese expatriates dispersed.
“In the beginning, there were lots of Japanese clients, but then all the companies left downtown. So I made sure it was open to everybody. You have to change,” Saito said.
In the 2000s, Echo Park began gentrifying and, little by little, young musicians discovered the bar just across the 101. The place was part of a fenced-in strip mall attached to a sagging Knights Inn, and its vintage décor and seedy environs felt ripped from a Reagan-era action flick. But it was staffed with young Japanese in tight leather pants. An entire wall was devoted to photos of the blond-frosted Saito mugging with guests in Halloween costumes, at pool parties and behind the microphone.
“I immediately felt I was in a Wong Kar Wai movie, [it was] extremely tawdry glamorous,” said John Famiglietti, bassist for the experimental L.A. noise-rock band Health. There was “definitely a clubhouse atmosphere” for local musicians, he said, but he admitted that the bar was almost too good to be true — “The first time I went some time ago I was like, ‘Well this place is going to be gone real soon.’”
The mysterious edge at Dinner House M appealed to night-life movers in town as well. In February 2010, Ashland Mines, co-founder of the delirious pansexual dance party Wildness that used to be held at the Silver Platter in Westlake, was looking for a new project. A regular at Dinner House M, he thought it’d be the perfect spot to curate a new night of his trademark mix of experimental electronic and dance music.
“The environment Miki created is a total sensual experience,” Mines said. “That low ceiling, muted green fluorescent light, and murky air give you the feeling of being drowned in a bog — in a good way.”
Going under the name Total Freedom, his Wednesday night party with cohort DJ SFV Acid, called Grown, earned write-ups on international music blogs and drew hundreds of musicians, actors, directors and transgendered nightlife fixtures every week. Artist regulars included the duo Nguzunguzu, a combo who have doubled as M.I.A.'s tour DJ; Teen Inc., whose members are session players for Raphael Saadiq and Pharrell Williams; and scores of other boldfaced names.
Piper Kaplan, singer for the indie combo Puro Instinct, called Dinner House M “the club that shaved all the retirement years off my life.”
The place thrived on Wednesdays and weekends, often drawing lines up to (and after) 2 a.m. Saito, who patrolled the room in spangled Hello Kitty earrings and a demeanor that veered from neighborhood bonhomie to iciness depending on your attitude and hour of arrival, always had guards on duty.
But perhaps inevitably, the law caught on as well.
“They had multiple violations for serving alcohol past 2 a.m.,” said Sgt. Fernando Garcia, with Detective Support and Vice Division of the LAPD’s Rampart Division. “It was well known as an after-hours club. They had their license revoked, they appealed, and they lost the appeal.”
Saito plans to close it on Wednesday with a sendoff party and says she is pursuing options at a few new spaces in downtown L.A. to open a new restaurant or nightclub. She plans to shut Dinner House M in the same way she opened it.
“I’ll be singing in a four-piece jazz band,” she said. “I usually don’t sing much anymore. But we’re going to do it M style that night.”