The meals were down-home soul food: black-eyed peas, short ribs, collard greens.
The rules were old-school and inviolable: no drugs, no groping the ladies, no casual clothes.
The cook and the enforcer at black Los Angeles’ legacy nightspot were its owners, a pair of German emigres who treated everyone who came through the door of Little J’s like family.
The restaurant on the edge of downtown — with no sign out front — for almost 40 years was the see-and-be-seen dance spot and hangout of black celebrities, politicians, police officers and ordinary folks. Like me.
Helga Hahneiser manned the door, making sure we all met the dress code that was spelled out in pictures of do’s and don’ts posted on the wall. Patrons would comport their behavior to match their attire, she felt. She kept a rack of clean, fashionable suit jackets to lend to men who weren’t properly dressed.
Her husband, Jurgen, ran the kitchen and socialized, making sure everyone was having a good time.
Even his elderly mother, on annual visits from Germany, played a part. She’d spend evenings on a banquette near the bar, holding our purses while we danced. She didn’t speak much English, which made her the perfect confidant.
In Little J’s heyday up to 1,000 people would pack both floors and spill onto its patio on Saturday nights. It wasn’t unusual to see a Ferrari parked on the sidewalk.
Michael Jackson visited, before “Thriller.” Prince came with a girlfriend, “when I didn’t even know who the hell he was,” Jurgen said. Stevie Wonder did an impromptu serenade on Jurgen’s birthday.
I wasn’t around for the celebrity stuff. I went because it was fun — a place for grown folks to dance and play cards and chitchat, without worrying that a fight would break out or that some guy would drug your drink.
I felt the loss when the couple sold the place and retired 10 years ago, as developers gobbled up their neighborhood near Staples Center.
By then the land was valuable — but the clientele was not.
“We didn’t set out to cater to any race, it just happened that way,” said Jurgen, 75, whose German-accented English is studded with timeworn locutions: He and Helga are Caucasian, I’m Afro-American.
Still, he’s the only old white guy I know who can refer to black guys as “brother” and nobody bats an eye.
The couple came to Los Angeles in 1966, the year after the Watts riots. They didn’t know much about race relations. “We’d heard about Mississippi in Europe,” said Helga, 74, “but we had no idea there was discrimination here.”
Jurgen worked in hotel kitchens; Helga took a housekeeping job. By 1969, they’d saved enough to buy a “crummy little tin-can Italian joint” that had six seats and a take-out window. They leveled it, rebuilt it and named it Little J’s.
Business was slow until Times food critic Lois Dwan wrote a glowing review of Jurgen’s signature chili. A bowl went for 55 cents then. Actor Buddy Ebsen, of “Beverly Hillbillies” fame, proclaimed it better than Chasen’s, the gold standard.
By 1971, Little J’s had become a popular gathering spot for employees of an insurance company across the street — and for union members supporting strikers picketing the nearby Herald-Examiner.
Almost all of the insurance employees were white. The union reps were predominantly black. Jurgen was clued in to the racial divide by an ugly slur scrawled on a bathroom wall.
“I wiped it off and didn’t think much about it,” he said. “Then I got a phone call, very direct, from someone using every bad word you can think of, including the n-word: ‘We want you to get rid of them,’ he said.
“I told him: ‘I run this place like it’s my house, and everybody in my house is family. So if you don’t like my family, find another house.’”
Within days, the flood of insurance company customers had slowed to a trickle. Helga heard from a secretary at the firm that executives had declared Little J’s off limits.
The drop in revenue hit the restaurant hard.
“We were working 16, 18 hours a day and struggling,” Jurgen recalled. “Overnight, our white clientele just disappeared.”
Their black customers realized what had happened and rallied around the couple. They invited friends, who brought their friends, many from unions representing law enforcement officers. So many cops became regulars, LAPD bosses had to call the club’s pay phone to track officers down.
When customers began dancing between the tables during happy hour, Jurgen added a dance floor and hired a DJ. The crowds grew, and so did the scrutiny. Vice officers, fire marshals and building inspectors visited so often that, to the Hahneisers, it felt like harassment.
When the zoning commission tried to declare the club a nuisance in 2004 because of its “clientele,” hundreds of customers from over the years — lawyers, doctors, professors, police officers, elected officials — wrote letters on Little J’s behalf and jammed the public hearing.
The effort was dropped, but the Hahneisers were done. They were tired of the long-running battle, which taught them about the burden of race and the value of friends.
Their biggest gripe about retirement? Jurgen misses his drinking buddies. And Helga laments, “I haven’t had a bowl of black-eyed peas or greens since then.”