Rock ‘n’ roll is to the Kibitz Room at Canter’s what onions are to chopped liver. The two have been closely aligned since the little bar opened just off the beloved Fairfax Avenue deli’s annex dining room in 1961. Only now, instead of a bunch of hippies and musicians like Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison hanging out there for the cheap booze and meaty sandwiches, you’ll find a bunch of hipsters and indie rock musicians hanging out there for the cheap booze and meaty sandwiches. So things have changed, but not that much.
Walk into the oblong bar — which is dark and divey and smells of moist corned beef and mustard — on any night after 10 p.m., and you’ll be treated to some kind of musical experience, usually of the indie rock variety: driving electric guitars, the pop and crack of drums, the deep thwang of bass and an urgent vocal run through an old PA. A hodgepodge of drinkers and diners lounges in the black, tufted booths. Servers deliver trays of Coke, hot black coffee with plastic cups of cream, plates of fat dill pickles, bottles of Tabasco and towering sandwiches spilling over with soft meat.
The two men behind the bar have been there for years. One, a gruff, older man with longish white hair and a black baseball cap, is Danny Boy Bauder. The other is the Kibitz Room’s booker, Eric Thatcher, with shaggy brown hair, glasses, jeans and a sweat shirt. Thatcher books the room based on his personal taste and his sense of the personalities of the musicians asking for a chance. It’s a welcome laissez-faire attitude unfamiliar in L.A.'s highly competitive music scene. Bands don’t usually get paid, but they get a free meal. And for L.A.'s hungry rockers, that’s a fair shake. Arguably no other club in town will feed you quite as well.
A perennial after-show favorite is the pastrami Reuben. Piled high with juicy pastrami, tangy sauerkraut and gooey Swiss cheese on toasted rye bread, the Canter’s Reuben has a Pavlovian pull on musicians. It’s likely that Neil Young ate a Reuben or two in the mid-'60s when he moved to L.A. from Canada and charged Canter’s patrons $1 to taxi them from the deli to the Sunset Strip in his hearse.
For the first 30 years of its existence, the Kibitz Room rarely hosted actual shows. But in 1989 a jazz musician/waiter named Eric Gold started a regular Monday jazz night. Then Bob Dylan’s son Jakob Dylan began coming in for the music and $1.30 beers, says owner Marc Canter. Soon Dylan’s keyboardist asked to stage a rock night on Tuesdays, and that’s when things started to get crazy.
The party got so big that it would pour into the annex room, and Canter had to sell hot dogs next to the cashier just to keep people sober “because they were drinking without eating, and bad things can happen.”
Canter would know. He’s been friends with Slash from the rowdy hard-rock band Guns N’ Roses since elementary school when the future icon (and poster boy for gratuitous shirtlessness) favored drawing dinosaurs to shredding. The band took its first band photo in a booth next to the Kibitz Room after returning from what Canter calls a “hell tour” to Seattle. Apparently Axl and the gang had been hitchhiking and eating onions and carrots that they stole from farms.
“They were starving, so of course they came to Canter’s,” says Canter who regularly gave the band free food and beer, and had been documenting its rise since he was fresh out of high school. He recently published a book about the band’s early years called “Reckless Road: Guns N’ Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction.” In addition to destruction, Slash also had an appetite for pastrami sandwiches, Axl for tuna fish and Duff for barley bean soup.
Earlier this year I was fortunate to play on the legendary stage with my band Wet & Reckless. The stage is basically just a small, dirty ledge the size of a walk-in closet, but the important thing is not how it looks; it’s who has been on it. Joni Mitchell, the Wallflowers, Fiona Apple, the Vacation, Rick James, members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and many more have played informal shows that have turned into free-wheeling jam sessions.
Juliette Lewis was there for the show I played because Chris Watson, the singer of the headlining band, Russian Bones, used to tour with her band, Juliette and the Licks. (All my life people have told me I look like Juliette Lewis. Not so much it turns out. She’s way skinnier.)
After our show I ordered the matzo ball soup. There’s a soothing magic to that soup, which consists of a single, apple-sized matzo ball that is chewy without being gooey. The dough ball is submerged in a deep bowl of rich, yellow chicken broth and is best consumed with a side of crispy thin bagel chips.
I’ve loved that soup for years and once drove across town for it after my old band, the Movies, played a show at Spaceland (now the Satellite) that ended with an all-night after-party during which I made an unfortunate decision involving tequila and gin and woke feeling half dead. The soup didn’t fix me, but the vodka-soda at the Kibitz Room did.
It’s likely that Watson, of Russian Bones, was at that party. We’ve rolled deep for years. But not for as long as Watson had pined to play the unassuming little deli bar. “I’d been wanting to play there my whole life,” Watson recently told me. “I don’t know why, but even after I’d toured the world, I never wanted to play the Roxy, the Viper Room or the Whisky. I wanted to play the Kibitz Room.”
Watson secured a Thursday night residency earlier this year, which had him performing for five Thursdays in a row. Thatcher let him book the gigs himself.
“The great thing about the place,” said Watson, “is that if you bring 10 people, it’s packed. Eric gave us free food, and the cheapest beer was free. I would always get their Reuben. The Reuben is amazing at Canter’s.”
“In Hollywood, there are so many new places, but they’re all the same,” said Thatcher on a recent Thursday night while the countrified rock band Ol’ Bessy played its residency. “But this place is funky, it’s unique. I say it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground.”
While he talked, Thatcher poured me a wine glass full of a Kool-Aid-red-colored alcoholic substance that he calls a WMD, which stands for “World’s Most Dangerous.” The drink begged for a juicy cheeseburger to accompany it, or maybe a tasty avocado melt with sauteed mushrooms, melty Swiss cheese and tomatoes. Or, if I wanted to really take it there, perhaps a decadent dessert like a calorie-laden cheesecake or hot apple strudel from the restaurant’s warm and inviting bakery. Don’t ask me why I found myself incoherently begging a server for a plate of the restaurant’s tart dill pickles.
With a good, stiff drink in your hand and a plate of some of the city’s most comforting comfort food in front of you, you’re ready for whatever the night has to offer. And at the Kibitz Room that could be just about anything, because it’s one of those rare bars that really doesn’t care if you get crazy.
“Once you get in there, everybody acts like it’s their home,” says Mac Dunlop, the singer of Ol’ Bessy. “I can stand on tables, I can take my guitar and get a beer. I’ve seen people consistently go nuts at shows — sometimes it’ll be crazy and glass shatters. There’s just that kind of energy there.”
Like Watson, Dunlop also gets the Reuben.
“Which is one reason,” said Dunlop, who has been playing at the Kibitz Room for years, “when our pockets were a little emptier, we would say, ‘Let’s play the Kibitz Room.’”