An urban conversation in Los Feliz

Tom Trellis, owner of the Alcove Cafe, put in a tiny antique chess table in his restaurant when it opened three years ago but forgot to put the pieces in the drawers. His customers have since filled the void with scores of notes, observations and journal entries, some of them labeled "Dear Chess Table."
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I am sitting with Stephanie. Three days in a row now we have met. We click together like Legos. Her lips taste like strawberries.


The little chess table was an afterthought.

Languishing in a South Pasadena antique shop, it was a fake -- “reproduction” is the polite term -- but it looked the part, with a broad, fluted base and engravings of ferns on the corners. A man named Tom Trellis picked it up in the spring of 2004.

Trellis was a corporate guy, not a foodie, with a pedigree in human resources, not goat cheese.


He had never opened a restaurant before, and there would have been much to do even if he hadn’t been persnickety about every detail: re-creating the building’s original window moldings, making sure his coffee beans were fresh off the roaster when they arrived each Friday in Los Feliz.

Not long before opening, he put the chess table against a wall of the back room of the cafe. And then, whether he was fretting over the size of the courtyard umbrellas or the consistency of the crème fraîche, he never found time to buy the pawns and the bishops that were supposed to fill the table’s six tiny drawers.

Lost in the hubbub of those early days was a customer -- no one knows who, or whether he or she has ever been back -- who wrote a diary entry of sorts, folded it up and left it behind in one of the empty drawers.

Someone else found it, read it and answered.

In an unlikely manner, an urban conversation began to unfold.

If all else fails, there is always cake.


Los Feliz, named for a Spanish colonel who looked after the settlers of the Los Angeles pueblo -- his name destined to be butchered by generations of Anglo Angelenos -- is a vivid reminder of the city’s ridiculously compressed history. In little more than a century, Los Feliz has gone from land grant to Queen Anne homes to Bukowski haunts to scenesters texting one another over boba tea.

Trellis grew up in Pittsburgh, but for much of his 17 years in L.A., he’d lived in the hills under the Griffith Observatory with his domestic partner, Mark Gunsky. At the edge of the flats below -- on a bustling block of Hillhurst Avenue where you can get waxed, manicured and spiritually healed at your choice of apothecary, Scientology mission or Chabad center -- Trellis found his spot.

The building, a Spanish-style duplex built in 1917, was home to a small escrow office when he found it.


“It felt like it deserved to be enjoyed by more people,” said Trellis, 45.

From the start -- and at this point in the story his eyes dart around for a piece of wood where he can rap his knuckles -- Alcove Cafe & Bakery was bustling.

These days, at the height of the brunch crush, the line can require boxing-out techniques that seem to belie the pillowy butter cream cake waiting for you at the counter or the thick book of Hans Hofmann Expressionism someone left lying on a chair.

A few hours later, it’s a good place to be if you’re at the tipping point of a lazy Sunday, when you can’t decide whether to have one last cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

I just want to be the one cared for sometimes.



There are scores of them now, journal entries, poems and observations, many of them labeled “Dear Chess Table,” filling the six drawers to the brim.

They’ve been rifled through to the point of decay, written over, wadded up and stolen. They’ve been written in English, Spanish, Japanese and French, on napkins, on receipts for turkey burgers and Arnold Palmers, on torn sugar packets and, one long-ago Sunday, on the back of a typed summary of a church sermon.


Victoria Molinarolo, 40, a former teacher, added this entry, written on the back of a receipt, in September: The most handsome and smart boy is sitting across from me. She was referring to her 9-year-old son, Che, who discovered the chess table after his mother began meeting him after school along nearby Franklin Avenue.

Now the family visits regularly. When they can, they sit at the table. When it’s taken, they sit as close as possible so they can watch other people’s reactions as they read the notes. At home, they quote them. Their favorite: Marianne wouldn’t let me eat her croissant sandwich today. . . . I want to kick her.

Many of the messages are the makings of bad, saccharine greeting cards, as if a throng of world-weary hipsters in hooded sweat shirts became trapped in the pages of a Mitch Albom book.

Be more loving with others.

I can’t see the forest for the trees.

There is a direct quotation -- properly attributed and very sarcastic -- from Dicky Fox, the Tom Cruise character’s mentor in “Jerry Maguire”: I love my life. I love my wife. And I wish you my kind of success.


There are commentaries about food and company.

The salad wasn’t very good but the conversation was.

And there are simple crushes.

Call me, Ryan F.

But dig deep, literally, under the wisecracks and the Follow-Your-Bliss platitudes, and you’ll find strikingly personal entries.

You’ll learn what’s on people’s minds: One man can’t find an apartment he can afford; another buried his Aunt Mary the day before and was heartened to see so many people turn out.

I went out on a Tuesday night four weeks ago and met the amazing woman I’m now in love with. Isn’t life funny? I never go out on weeknights.

You’ll find heartfelt confessionals, and great joy, and great pain.

I love my boyfriend. He seems like he doesn’t. That’s the worst thing in my life.


To connoisseurs, those entries speak to something bigger than a little chess table and suggest a deep yearning for community.

There are 4 million people in Los Angeles now, held hostage by 7,000 miles of roads, surrounded by 14 million more people across Southern California. It is dynamic and exhilarating, and so impenetrable that you might wind up sharing your most intimate secrets with a table.

Or, as one person wrote: Is it possible to both love and hate L.A.?