The Enabler: Soaking up retro vibe at the Valley’s classic bars
The Safari Room lies about 24 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, in the thick of the overgrown suburban jungle that is the San Fernando Valley. Its plain white brick building serves as a mid-20th-century time capsule. Only the retro sign outside, which shows a wildly dancing witch doctor, hints at the classic lounge perfection inside.
In addition to the Safari Room, the Valley is home to a number of blissfully unmolested lounges from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Even when these antiquities have been spruced up — as is the case with the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood — they have often managed to maintain their essential old-school qualities. These bars are not dives — they are places you would feel comfortable taking your grandmother for a Brandy Alexander.
In a fit of nostalgia for what she perceived to be simpler, more straight-forward times (when “ttyl” was still a typo), the Enabler recently made it her mission to drink in as many of these sodden relics as possible. It was a quest that sent her hurtling through the strip mall and liquor store landscape of the Valley — to the Blue Room and the Smokehouse in Burbank; the Chimneysweep in Sherman Oaks; the Foxfire Room in NoHo; and a number of others. The tour included the Star Lite Room in Studio City and the Liquid Zoo in Van Nuys, which despite promising exteriors, were hopelessly torn apart inside.
On a recent Monday night, the Enabler began her journey at the Safari Room in Mission Hills. She sat in a black tufted booth, sipped thoughtfully on a dry martini and watched the Daytona 500 erupt into an apocalypse of fiery crashes. Besides the Enabler and her designated driver — we’ll call him the Inhibitor for his capacity to drain the fun out of a glass of booze — there were seven other contemplative souls at the bar. Three were employees and four were grizzled Valley vets with a penchant for short-sleeved shirts with collars.
The social media crowd was noticeably absent, the Enabler thought. Which was exactly why the Safari Room, with its tiger and lion paintings, crossed spears and African masks, had not been hunted into extinction by ironic sentimentalists. One tweeting Kurtz in the heart of Valley darkness could indeed unleash the horror of revitalization that has been visited upon many a native midcentury lounge in Los Angeles.
“You can always tell the early ‘60s places because of the gold-veined mirrors and the wood paneling, so we wouldn’t have to paint,” explained a bartender named Jody at the Foxfire Room, which opened in 1961 and is resplendent with dark-wood paneling and gold-veined mirrors. An old man she called Lazlo nodded pensively into his non-alcoholic Buckler beer.
There is a Lazlo at every one of these classic lounges — a regular who has been coming since, as bartender Marie King at the Tonga Hut says, “Dirt was young,” which is also how long King says she has been bartending. A tiki aficionado, King was most recently the bar manager at Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach before a car accident put her out of work for two years. A week ago she began mixing at the Tonga Hut, which opened in 1958, because its owner wanted to bring a bona-fide tiki mixologist into the place.
“Tiki was all about midcentury suburbia,” said King, mixing a rum-based Manhattan-esque drink called the Bitter Truth. “People were drawn to the exotic, and after Word War II it became escapism.” This explains why a number of these old lounges, like the Safari Room, are themed. The Tonga Hut, for example, features an odd stone tiki fountain called “the Drooling Bastard,” tufted olive-green booths with thatched roofs, and an orange stovepipe fireplace. It also has a Lazlo named Bob, who has been a regular for 42 years and remembers when the studio executives used to come in for their “pre-work drink.”
The Chimneysweep in Sherman Oaks, which was opened in 1960, isn’t themed, but like the Firefox, it has gold-veined mirrors and lots of wood paneling. It also has ghosts, says bartender Millie Bunch, who has been serving up sweetness and double whiskeys to an adoring crowd for 20 years.
“They sit in the corner,” Bunch told the Enabler over an amply poured glass of Glenlivet. “They have uniforms on. I don’t know what war they were in, but they want to be here.”
Ghosts aren’t alone in their love of the Chimneysweep, which these days can generate a line of artsy Pabst fans at night but still draws wizened day drinkers. Stevie Wonder has celebrated his birthday there, Bunch said, and Keanu Reeves used to hang out when he was playing with his band, Dogstar.
“It’s not about posing, it’s not about who you know,” said Bunch. “If you come in and you’re not nice, you don’t stay too long.”
Next time she’s in the Valley, the Enabler thinks, she really will bring her grandma.
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