I am writing this love letter on the back of my wrist, in a handsome old dump that looks like it washed ashore during a storm. The object of my affection is the Harbor Room, a popcorn ball of driftwood, sly smirks and sticky beer. Purportedly, it is the smallest bar in Los Angeles and the third-smallest in the nation. This allows for a rakish intimacy. Total strangers confide. Mothers duck out for an hour here in the late afternoon.
Look, just forward my mail here for the summer. I’m on sabbatical, after all, thinking cheap thoughts, trying to figure out life (and death) and all the little steps in between.
This week’s passion: “Noir bars,” my term for dark sanctuaries we duck into on blistering summer afternoons. Cool, like caves. Spiritual, like cathedrals. Black as an old Bible.
For the last few weeks, I have scouted dozens of them. Some are places I already knew. Others, like the Harbor Room, came highly recommended.
Indeed, there is a passion for these hangouts. They all have war stories, the hint of scandal. Typically, they tend to feature old chrome cash registers, jukeboxes and pool cues crooked as a broken nose.
You can tell noir bars because the Christmas lights stay up all year (it is always the holidays).
You can tell noir bars because they have no windows, no clocks. You come to noir bars to escape a thankless and increasingly fretful world. And to laugh.
“John Lennon was such a fraud,” I say, just to get the conversation rolling.
In a noir bar, provocation is king. The truth connects to nothing (and neither do the exposed pipes in the men’s room).
Staci Clark, who owns one of the noir standouts,Ercole’s, won’t rent it to movie crews because she fears that if they moved the old photos “the walls might crumble.”
Noir bars are seriously underlit, obviously. On a super-bright summer day it takes about 10 minutes for your irises to adjust. You stumble about, hoping you don’t accidentally set your fist down in someone’s chili.
Taylor’s Steakhouse in Koreatown might just be the darkest joint of all. For all you know, there could be a séance going on, an inquest, a Roman orgy.
Taylor’s proves that not all noir bars are cheap. It manages, despite its higher prices, to remain an old-school sanctuary, a swanky midcentury place to nurse a sweaty martini.
Watch my drink, OK? I need to call my bookie, Johnny Trombone.
Most noir bars, though, are bargains. In my estimation, they are our most democratic cultural institutions. Marilyn Monroe used to wait for JFK at the no-frills Chez Jay in Santa Monica. You can still lean your arms on the same lacquered surfaces where Marilyn rested her famous elbows.
If you haven’t been to Chez Jay, you haven’t really been to L.A.
There are no velvet ropes at a noir bar, no black-suited goon with a clipboard and a ’tude. Noir bars are the antidote to the elitism inherent in this capital of ego and glitz.
If you show up to a noir bar in your McLaren, don’t be a putz. Park it around the corner.
Preferably, you come in whiskers. You come in flip-flops. You come in sweaty from your weekly game of hoops.
Banter — all good bars can be measured by their banter. Don’t go silent into that dark bar.
You might never have heard of Boardner’s, the Fenway of banter. Old Hollywood dump, Moorish crown moldings, a beatnik patio and a jukebox with a bartender override (most jukes now give the bar staff veto power over bad taste).
The other day, I met a couple there visiting from Antelope Valley to escape the kids.
Amy and Jacob Cooksey started talking about maybe moving to Texas, then Jacob confessed to fearing a lack of enlightenment there.
“I like that we can have a conversation here,” he said of California. “I like that people are not so judgmental.”
See, told you it was like church.
We ended up deciding — in a very dark bar on a very bright day — that sunshine isn’t California’s greatest gift. Tolerance and enlightenment are, plus a spotty sense of forgiveness. Not always, but frequently enough.
I sure hope they stay.
Other noir bars? You’ve got your list, I’ve got mine. The nominees grow every time I mention this salute to places of higher learning. Seems everyone has a favorite.
Our winners are rarely pretty — most look like student housing. Yet, you could never create one from scratch, because it would lack a musk, patina, a bit of grit. Noir bars look like old tubas. They sound like troopships.
With that in mind, here’s my list of L.A.’s best noir bars:
1. Ercole’s (rhymes with Hercules) in Manhattan Beach. Erc’s has been open since the 1920s, in one form or another. It feels like a college bar crossed with a sailor bar, crossed with a great burger joint, which it also is. “Places like this are so rare,” says TV writer Kristin Long, who is working on a book about the bar. “They’re what make this town.” 1101 Manhattan Blvd., Manhattan Beach.
2. Boardner’s in Hollywood. “This is the locals’ Hollywood bar,” says barkeep Eli Mahar. Boardner’s is cheap, lively, with parking right across the street. Don’t forget the beatnik patio. 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., Hollywood.
3. The Tonga Hut in North Hollywood. Great tiki bars like this are a subset of noir bars: dark, busy, magnificent. Extra points for the Psychedelic Furs on the terrific jukebox. 12808 Victory Blvd., North Hollywood.
4. Chez Jay in Santa Monica. It has banter, it has peanuts on the floor, it has chatty bartenders dating to the Ice Age. Ask for the Marilyn booth, where Monroe awaited her study sessions with JFK. 1657 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica.
5. The Galley in Santa Monica. It’s got that Christmas light thing going, a cozy patio and porthole windows. On a poster: “Octopuses have three hearts and blue blood.” Who doesn’t? 2442 Main St., Santa Monica.
6. The Blue Room in Burbank. Used in the movies “Heat” and “Memento,” this place has a Rat Pack, old Hollywood vibe. But a classy local joint. Blue Heaven. 916 S. San Fernando Road, Burbank.
7. The Harbor Room in Playa del Rey. Cozy, worn, with tons of wry resignation. “Open but don’t expect too much!” says the sign on the door. 195 Culver Blvd., Playa Del Rey.
8. Class of ’47 in Newport Beach. Former John Wayne hangout fills all the seedy requirements of a respectable noir bar. Changed my mind: Please have my mail forwarded here. 209 Palm St., Newport Beach.
9. Taylor’s Steakhouse in Koreatown. First-rate steaks in a room that’s darker than a hit man’s soul. The kind of place Marlowe would’ve staked out, hunting for rich and lusty new clients. 3361 W. 8th St., Koreatown.
10. The Shortstop near Dodger Stadium. Bullet hole still in the door from a shooting decades ago. The lesson? Don’t hold up a cop bar in broad daylight. These days, the go-to spot for Dodgers fans. 1455 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park.