Venerable Hollywood dive bar takes last plunge

Customers nurse drinks at the Powerhouse bar in Hollywood, which is preparing to close.
(Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

One of Hollywood’s last dive bars is going down.

The dark and dingy-looking Powerhouse bar near the corner of Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard will close for good at 2 a.m. Tuesday so its owners can renovate it and reopen with a hipper, clublike feel.

“They want to make it a more trendy place. They feel Hollywood’s demographics are changing and they want to be a part of that,” said Jim Kalin, who has managed Powerhouse for 10 years.

Known for its $3 glasses of draft Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and its hodge-podge collection of framed artwork, the Powerhouse is said to have opened in 1947, when barber Joe Power decided to open a bar next to his barbershop. Kalin speculates that Power’s original liquor license was transferred from another location since he has only been able to trace the current license back to 1960.

Over the years Powerhouse has attracted celebrities along with a blue-collar crowd looking for an inexpensive brew and friendly faces seated at its 35-foot-long bar.

The Beatles spent several afternoons in a darkened booth in late August of 1965 while in town to perform at the Hollywood Bowl. Author Charles Bukowski was a frequent customer, as were actors Kiefer Sutherland and Pauley Perrette, musicians Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and a raft of costumed characters from the nearby Hollywood Walk of Fame.


On Oscar night, tuxedoed attendees from the Dolby Theatre across the street would slip into Powerhouse to relax and enjoy a quick drink. Production workers at the nearby “Jimmy Kimmel Show” frequently steered music groups to the bar after taping was over. Bartenders shut down the jukebox so band members could watch their performance on TV.

Regulars say they were blindsided by news that Powerhouse will soon be powering down.

“I’m sorry to see this place go,” said Mike Cornwell, a Los Feliz computer programmer who has frequented the bar for five years. “This place is unique for this area. It’s a good place to hang out. L.A.’s an expensive place to drink. Not here. This is a real neighborhood bar.”

Dustin Stephens, a camera assistant who lives in Chatsworth, said he recognizes that Hollywood is changing as it becomes revitalized.

“I know they’re trying to clean this area up. But this has that Old Hollywood feel to it,” said Stephens, a Powerhouse customer for 14 years. “When I first heard about this place and I was old enough to drink I came here.”

Kalin, a Koreatown resident who is a writer when he isn’t tending the Powerhouse bar, said he has compiled a checklist of 18 things that define a true dive bar. They include “no mirrors in the bathrooms,” no sugar-free energy drinks, no uniforms for bartenders (if a customer doesn’t know who “to order from, he’s had enough to drink”), no TV behind the bar and “a great neon sign” out front.

Oddly, the Powerhouse sign spells the bar’s name as “Power House,” although in reality it’s one word, Kalin said.

Eric Torres, a Camarillo produce clerk, read over the list as he sat at the bar and nursed a glass of PBR. Yep, he decided that Powerhouse met all 18 criteria. “The atmosphere is what people come here for,” Torres said.

Even though Powerhouse can only accommodate 47 at its 18 bar stools and booths, Pabst presented the bar with a plaque last year acknowledging that Kalin and bartenders Rhett Hornberger, Jill Sellers, Tom Stampalia, Dana Moglene and doorman Tom Billet sold enough PBR to rank 27th among the brand’s U.S. distributors.

“Pabst Blue Ribbon even sponsored the bar’s softball team,” said Garret Christensen, an artist who has been a Powerhouse regular for seven years. For a decade the brewer paid the team’s league entry fees and provided hats and wrist bands for Powerhouse team members.

But Pabst’s days at Powerhouse are numbered, Kalin said. “The owners are looking to get the place next door and possibly put a kitchen in. They’re getting rid of PBR,” he said.

Powerhouse owners Ken Jones and Jeffrey Best, who operate several other Los Angeles-area restaurants and bars, could not be reached for comment about their plans.

But the place has been packed since word got out that the old Powerhouse would soon be gone. Its regulars grouse that “velvet ropes” may soon go up at 1714 N. Highland Ave.

“People have been kind of bum-rushing us for a last drink the past few days,” said Hornberger as he poured another draft PBR. “But where were they the last five years when the economy went down and business here took a fall?

Twitter: @BobsLAtimes