Swinging Doors — Los Angeles’s Oldest Bars


INTRODUCTION

In 2018, I made a map of Los Angeles’s oldest restaurants and wrote a bit about them. It proved relatively easy because there was lots already written on the subject. When I started writing about Los Angeles’s oldest bars, it proved much more difficult. Not only could I find no serious effort to draw upon, most of the flimsy listicles out there were a jumble of misinformation copy-and-paste jobs from equally terrible listicles served with a side of rehashed clickbait. An endless, Ouroboros-like circle of content creators eating their own necrotic tails. And so I actually had to spend a lot of time and effort on this piece. If you like it, please consider tipping yours truly by becoming a patron. The more I get in tips, the less I have to find money elsewhere and the less worthless “content” you’ll find clogging your news feed. We all win, in other words.


Un bar aux Folies Bergère by Edouard Manet (1881-1882)

I began with a seemingly obvious question, namely, what is a bar? One dictionary definition states that a bar is “an establishment where alcohol and sometimes other refreshments are served.” By that definition, though, Outback Steakhouse is a bar. I’m not even sure Outback Steakhouse is a restaurant although I ate a bloomin’ onion (an Australian delicacy) at one in Oklahoma in 1998. To wash it down, I drank an ancient can of Guinness, served without a glass, that I had to wipe dust from the top of before joylessly consuming. I don’t have a better definition of what a bar is but, like United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who when asked to define obscenity stated “I know it when I see it,” I reckon I know a bar when I see one. A bar is a place that serves alcohol and sometimes other refreshments but that’s not all it is. If that’s all it was, we bar lovers would happily save some money by buying alcohol from a convenience store, pour it into styrofoam cup, and get drunk it in the parking lot or alley.

A bar is also a third place — the sort of place we differentiate from first places (our homes) and second places (our jobs). A bar, in that way, is like a bookstore, a church, a coffee shop, a donut shop, an arcade, a pool parlor, a social club, a park, a bowling alley, a post office, or a library. In the past, pharmacies were also third places but most independent pharmacies have been replaced by soulless CVSes and Sav-Ons… and you’d have to be a real sicko to want to hang out an either of those any longer than is absolutely necessary. Chain pharmacies are Hell — and Hell is a second place. There are still exceptions here and there. Fair Oaks Pharmacy is a delight. At bars, you don’t choose who else is there. You might sit at a bar with people from different economic classes, with different political views, and of different faiths — and if they’re sitting at a bar, any, ideally, might happily discuss those topics we’re told to avoid in polite company — namely money, politics, and religion. Or, conversely, you can grab a quiet booth, crack open a book, and enjoy a drink or two. There are few things better than reading in a quiet bar.

BAR HISTORY

The oldest bar in continuous operation is San Francisco‘s Old Ship Saloon, established in 1851. California is, supposedly, home to more historic bars than any other state. I don’t have a source nor do I know by what metric the bars’ historicity was measured for that but I read it somewhere and so I’m repeating it as fact. That sort of reasoning happens a lot at bars. Most bars, in my experience, has their Cliff Clavin. “It’s a little known fact that this bar was owned by Charlie Chaplin… and it was a speakeasy… and it was the last place the Black Dahlia was seen…. and she was with Charles Bukowski!” At bars, tall tales well-told are valued at least as much as actual facts, which is probably why there’s so much BS repeated over and over until it becomes accepted bar lore. Here, though, are some facts.

The city (but not county) of Los Angeles officially went dry in 1917. Prohibition was enacted on 17 January 1920. Beer was legalized on 7 April 1933. Prohibition was entirely repealed on 5 December 1933. Los Angeles never truly went dry, though, and both City Hall and the Los Angeles Police Department were intimately involved in bootlegging. Some bars survived Prohibition by selling near beers, bitters, and sarsaparillas. Others went underground, sometimes literally. For the purposes of this piece, I’m focusing on bars that have been open since the 1930s or earlier. There are surely some that I’ve missed but others, that you may expect to see here, are more often than not newer than they’re usually claimed to be. For example, The Continental Room in Fullerton is marketed as the oldest bar in Orange County and one that has been in operation since 1925. The building may be that old but the bar itself opened in 2002. For that reason, I’ve included newer bars that make similar claims on the map. If you know of any other heritage bars, however, let me know in the comments.

Here are the pre-1950 bars that I know of…


THE ALHAMBRA COCKTAIL LOUNGE (1936)

The origins of the Alhambra Cocktail Lounge, like those of many old bars, are a bit blurry. According to a probably unpaid intern writing for Timeout, it opened in 1904. This is dubious since the County Assessor‘s office claims that the building in which it’s located was only built in 1912. Even more daming is a sign hung outside the Alhambra that says “since 1936.” Bars claiming to have opened at a later date than they actually did is pretty much unheard of. I haven’t yet gone to the Alhambra, though although once, when I was having a pint at the Whale & Ale, however, a salty dog named Tim regaled my friend Mike and I with many colorful tales. One involved his days of “shanghaiing” unsuspecting dupes at the Alhambra and then somehow conveying them to and leaving them in the old San Pedro jail. He then invited us to accompany him to his favorite haunt. We passed.

GETTING THERE

The Alhambra is served by LADOT‘s DASH San Pedro Line and Commuter Express 142. It’s also near The Port of Los Angeles Waterfront Red Car Line, assuming that it re-opens someday.


THE BLUE ROOM (1947)

The Blue Room is located inside a building that was constructed in 1928. Located near the Glendale-Burbank border, it was known as The Glen-Bur Cafe until 1947, when it was taken over by Augustine J. Grafi and Frederick B. Haddix. That May, they opened Augie & Bucks Blue Room. The cocktail bar had (and has) an appropriately blue color scheme, down to the booths and lights. In addition to serving drinks, they served steaks and chops.

The Blue Room was in the news quite a lot for a cocktail bar in the years since it opened. In 1949, L. Leo Morgan sued the owners when a rat climbed up his pant leg and bit him whilst he occupied the phone booth. In 1955, it was raided for running bookkeeping businesses concurrent with the Hollywood Park racing season. In 1954, the lifeless body of Mary Von Elm (wife of golfer George Von Elm) was discovered in the front seat of a car in the parking lot, near an empty bottle of insecticide. With her was a younger golfer, Roy Ford, who lived with the Von Elms and claimed he dated his protege’s wife. Her death was ruled a suicide.

In April 1956, a fire broke out and a man who identified himself to firefighters as the owner asked that they chop a hole in the wall through which he retrieved a sack of money before vanishing. He was not one of the owners, who by then were Bermeice and John Samarjian. In 1957, two gunmen (Dale G. Kempf and Lambert Fontenot) held up the bar, robbing both a bartender and customers. Patrons and a bartender were again robbed at gunpoint in 1964. Augied died in 1992.

GETTING THERE

The Blue Room is served by Metro‘s 94 and 96 lines, and the Glendale Beeline‘s 7 Line.


CLUB TEE GEE (1946)

In 1946, two World War II veterans and brothers-in-law, Neil W. Tracy and Joe Grzybowski, opened Club Tee Gee. The “Tee” and Gee” were references to the owners’ respective family names. They remodeled an old bank, applying a flagstone façade and a neon “cocktails” sign. Tracy died in 1961. Grzybowski met a transplant from New York City named Betty Barlotta, who took over ownership of the bar in 1981. Grzybowski died of a heart attack in 1984. Barlotta continued to run the bar, with new partner Bob Kick. On 1 September 2017, ownership was transferred to Greg Dulli. To read more, click here.

GETTING THERE

Club Tee Gee is served by Metro’s 92 and 201 lines.


COLE’S (1908)

On 8 December 1908, Harry M. Cole opened Cole’s P. E. Buffet in the basement of the Pacific Electric Building. His son, Rawland, was born the following year. Although the main claim of Cole‘s is that they invented the French dip sandwich, that culinary distinction is almost certainly owned by Philippe. The claim is seemingly based entirely on the fact that they opened before Philippe’s but conveniently ignores that it didn’t appear on the menu of either establishment until the 1930s. Not that it matters to me. I like animals and so the idea of eating cow flesh stuffed between pieces of soggy bread is no temptation The only sandwiches I routinely get excited about are bánh mì (with thịt chay, natch)… and sometimes I get a bit wistful about the lack of Reubens in my life if I’m honest.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of Cole’s or Cole as dishonest then but Harry Cole was arrested for fraud on charges unrelated to sandwiches in 1942. That probably had to do with Cole’s check-cashing service, Cole’s Check Service Inc., which first Harry Cole launched from the bar in 1920, and which with Rawland ultimately took over. Harry died in January 1945. The state of California shut it down the check service in 1955.

In 1974, Cole’s was designated Historical-Cultural Landmark No. 104. In 1988, bartender Jimmy Barela, who was hired in 1925, finally retired. By 1993, it was owned by Gitti and Madhi “Martin” Beheshti. They sold Cole’s to the 213 Hospitality in 2007. 213 has since rebranded as Pouring With Heart. It re-opened in 2008 with a second bar, Varnish, inside a converted storage closet. I’ve been to Cole’s a few times with friends, including my friend Matt and Karen Lee Williams — despite the fact that my ex lived across the street — because it’s a great bar and a few picklebacks heal all wounds.

GETTING THERE

Cole’s is served by Metro‘s 20, 60, 720 lines; and LADOT‘s DASH D Line.


COOK’S CORNER (1926, bar added in 1933)

In 1883, a merchant named Andrew Jackson Cook acquired 77 hectares in what was then still Los Angeles County. The following year, he constructed a structure or two at the corner of Live Oak and Santiago Canyon. In 1926, Cook’s son, Earl Jack (or “EJ”) began selling food at a food stand across the street from where the bar is situated, basically the starting point for the Cook’s Corner restaurant. In 1933, right after Prohibition was repealed, Cook began selling booze across the street from inside a honey hut borrowed from Asbury Jackson Shaw. The operation moved into its current location after a building from a World War II airfield was moved there in 1946.

On 19 December 1968, The Tustin News reported that Cook’s Corner was burglarized when burglars climbed through a window broken in a previous burglary. According to Paul Dale Burger, they made off with $25 worth of pottery, $21 worth of beer, and $3.50 worth of meat along with the change from a cigarette machine and a jukebox. Not that that’s much of a story but I found it amusing.

In 1975, the Cook family moved to Montana and sold Cook’s Corner to Victor Villa and Volker Streicek, of Santa Ana-based motorcycle accessories company Cheat’ah Engineering. At that point, it became popular with motorcyclists. Villa and Streicek sold the bar in the early 1980s. In 1988, Cook’s Corner was purchased by Frank de Luna. De Luna spent another $90,000 on upgrades, adding a compact disc jukebox, a big-screen television, and a cocktail bar. As a result, the bar began to cater less to outlaws (the traditional clientele) and increasingly to “rubs” or “rubbies” (rich urban bikers).

At that point, it began to change hands so often that it’s a bit dizzying… or merely disinteresting. In 1999, faced with permitting issues, de Luna announced his intention to sell the bar for $2.7 million. Pete Katelaris and Costas Papacharalambous bought it in 2005. At some point, Pete Burback bought it and announced it was shutting down in 2017. I’m not sure who owns it now but last I checked it was still open. I still haven’t been to Cook’s Corner but Mike and I once headed there and (lacking cell reception) ended up in Silverado Canyon, which is a really magical place.

GETTING THERE

Cook’s Corner isn’t served by mass transit. Most visitors, it seems, arrive by motorcycle.


1881 (1946)

The 1881 Cocktail Bar is often said to have opened in 1936. However, it was Al’s Place until 1946. Al’s Place was owned by Albert P. and Bessie R. Nowlin. In 1946, they sold it to Pietro and Marianna Milana, who opened the 1881 Club. It was run by Santo P. Milano.

GETTING THERE

The 1881 is served by Metro’s 31, 32, 256, and 686 lines.


EL PASEO INN (1930)

El Paseo Inn opened in 1930, the year Olvera Street was given a tourist-friendly makeover spearheaded by Christine Sterling, who wished to play up Southern California‘s pre-Mexican Spanish period. It was founded by Maria Elena Peluffo and Frank Webb and originally served both Mexican and Italian dishes. When Prohibition was repealed, in 1933, it secured the fourth liquor license given out that year.

It was originally located at the end of the street in a smaller location. In 1953, Andy M. Camacho bought it moved it to a larger location on Olvera, one previously inhabited by Café Caliente. Its former spot was taken over by Cielito Lindo. The building in which El Paseo Inn has been located since then was built around 1870 and used in wine production. It may surprise modern-day readers that Olvera Street was formerly known as Calle de los Vignes and Los Angeles was the wine-making capital of the entire country.

GETTING THERE

El Paseo Inn is located across the street from Union Station so there are two many transit options to mention.


ERCOLE’S (c. 1936)

The neon sign at Ercole’s proclaimes that it was was established in 1927. I’m not sure where that year was arrived at. In 1918, the building in which Ercole’s is located was constructed but in the 1920s, it was home to Notion’s. The Manhattan Cafe opened there on 29 June 1929. Its founers were Grace Ullery and GiuseppeJoe” Ercole, an immigrant from Quattordio, Italy. Ercole had been busted for bootlegging in 1921 but the Manhattan Cafe seems to have been a legitimate sandwich and ice cream parlor. Ercole remained in 1933 and his new wife, Blanche, also helped run the establishement, which remained in business until at least lat 1935.

By 1937, the Ercoles had closed the cafe and opened, in its place, Ercole’s Cafe. Ercole’s offered steak, chicken, and Italian dinners. The chef was Frank Brusasco. There was also a cocktail bar. In 1945, Joe Ercole was joined behind the bar by his son, Alexander “Al” Jerry Ercole, who’d just returned from World War II. In 1948, Al took over the establishement with his sister, Marguerite, and Marguerite’s husband, Robert E. Morrison. It was remodeled with a western theme by George “Red” Jones. An ad from that year proclaimed that Ercole’s was celebrating its 25th anniversary, which would’ve meant that it had opened in 1923 — which it didn’t.

In 1950, Al began running the establishment with Roland M. Polsley and Hal E. Bachmann. Al cashed out in 1957, after which it continued to be run by Bachmann and Polsley. It was later owned by Louis and Ellen Underwood. It was bought by Gary Keith Moore on 16 March 1972. Joe Ercoled died in 1983. Al Ercole died in 1994. Gary Moore died in 2015.

GETTING THERE

Ercole‘s is served by Metro‘s 438 Line and Beach Cites Transit‘s 109 Line


FOOTSIE’S (1948)

In 1932 or ’33, Howard Hardware closed and was replaced by Cliff’s Inn, a tavern run by expert marksman (and member of both the L.A.-Santa Monica Gun Club and the Red Lion Skeet TeamMajor R. Slater and “Pete.” Cliff’s Inn was still in business as late as 1946, however, and still run by Slater although Pete seems to have been replaced by Fred Seney. Major Slater retired in 1948 and Cliff’s Inn was bought by Ferdinand “Footsie” Gioia, who opened Footsie’s. Footsie died in April 1963. Its next owner was Pietro Ferro. It was purchased by Greg Dulli in 2003 and given a New Orleans-theme makeover. To read more about the history of Footsie’s, click here.

GETTING THERE

Footsie’s is served by Metro‘s 81 and 251 lines.


THE FORMOSA CAFE (1939)

The Red Post Cafe was in operation as early as 1915. Around 1939, nightclub owner Max Goldie acquired it, added a dining room, kitchen, and bar, and it re-opened as The Formosa Cafe. The cross street is Formosa Avenue but, of course, Formosa is also the name the Portuguese named the island of Taiwan and the Formosa Cafe had an Orientalist aesthetic. A retired Pacific Electric Railway car (800 series) was repurposed as the Star Dining Room.

Goldie was murdered in 1947 — shot in the back whilst using a payphone on Santa Monica Boulevard. A bookie named Jimmy Bernstein took over operations. According to a memoir written by Lindy Brewerton, a bartender at the Formosa for 48 years, chef Lem Quon came on board in 1948 or ’49. Quon was from Hong Kong, not Formosa/Taiwan, and so, appropriately, the cuisine he made was mostly Cantonese and American Chinese (although there was and maybe still is Mongolia BBQ — which is essentially Taiwanese teppanyaki). When Bernstein died in 1973, Quon became the sole owner. Quon’s stepson, William Jung, took over operations before Quon’s death in 1993. In 2015, it was given a disastrous makeover, with the autographed headshots of Classic Hollywood Era movie stars removed, and newly blank walls painted a depressing gray. After an outcry, it was mostly restored but then closed in 2016. It re-opened in 2017 with new owners 1933 Group at the helm.

GETTING THERE

The Formosa Cafe is served by Metro‘s 4 Line, as well as the WeHo CityLine and the Pick-Up Line.


THE FROLIC ROOM (c. 1946)

The building in which both the Frolic Room and the Pantages are located was completed in 1930. The theater was originally a cinema and part of the Fox West Coast Theatres chain. It opened on 4 June 1930. The space occupied by the Frolic Room appears in photos from the cinema’s opening as “for rent.” By 1936, they had a tenant — the Fountain Cafe — which advertised beer and wine — as well as steak and chicken dinners. In 1939, it was for sale. I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly when the Frolic Room moved in but the slang, “frolic room,” seems to have first begun to appear in American English in the second half of the 1940s.

The first dated image I’ve seen of the Frolic Room is from a photograph dated 29 January 1947. Although it is very difficult to make out what is purportedly the Frolic Room, it probably is at least from that year, as Song of the South is playing at the Pantages and that film was released in 1946. That suggests to me that unless the Frolic Room had just opened, it had probably been there at least since 1946. The first written mention of the Frolic Room that I’ve found is in the 1948 city directory. There are also numerous advertisements in that year’s Hollywood-Citizen News proclaiming that the bar’s speciality, in addition to cocktails, is Boston baked beans and brown bread. There is also an attempt to placate patron panic over potential pandemonium in the form of a proclamation stating “no orchestral din.” In 1949, Howard Hughes bought the building and renamed the Pantages the RKO Pantages.

GETTING THERE

The Frolic Room is located across the street from Metro‘s Hollywood/Vine Station, which is served by the B Line. It’s also served by Metro‘s 180, 210, 212, 217, and 222 lines; and LADOT‘s DASH Beachwood Canyon and Hollywood lines.


THE GALLEY (c. 1945)

Most sources claim that the Galley opened in 1934. I’m not saying that they’re all wrong, but the County Assessor says that the building in which it’s located was constructed in 1936 and an ad from 1937 lists it as for sale. In 1945, Guiseppe Gallo was running a business there called the Gallo Cafe with his business partner, Clifford Stephens, and it was that year that they acquired a liquor license. It was known as The Galley at least as early as 1948. By 1956, Stephens’s son, Ralph, had taken over. That year, whenever mentioned, the story was that it as more 35 years old — meaning it had opened in 1921 or so — fifteen years before the building had been constructed. In 1966, the Evening Vanguard reported that it was 30 years old. Ron Schur took over in 1989.

The Galley is served by Big Blue Bus‘s 1 and 8 lines.


THE GOLDEN GOPHER (1939)

The Golden Gopher‘s official origin story is that it was founded in 1905 as the Golden Sun Saloon and that it was secretly owned by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the United States until 1909. If that seems unbelievable to you, then you are not alone. Roosevelt was practically a teetotaler and a litigious one at that. He once said a man for libel because he claimed that Roosevelt drank booze. Roosevelt proclaimed in court “I have never been drunk or in the slightest degree under the influence of liquor.” Not that there haven’t been hypocrites in office, before, but that no one in the press would’ve discovered that he was, while president, also a secret saloon keeper, well.

The truth is that the building in which the Golden Gopher is located was, in fact, constructed in 1905. The floors above were run as a boarding house and the groundfloor’s first tenant, apparently, was the Broadway Skirt Manufacturing Company. In 1906, Misses Setzleff and Nordby moved their “health and beauty sanitarium’ into the space. They offered ladies electric light baths, magnetic massage, manicures, and treatments for rheumatism, colds, constipation, and nervous troubles. It’s hard to imagine a less Rooseveltian operation. Roosevelt grew up a sickly, asthmatic, home-schooled New York blue blood. He laboriously constructed an image of a macho rugged cowboy and big-game hunter. I doubt his fragile grasp on masculinity would’ve allowed for “Swedish manipulation” at the hands of a masseuse, even though the parlor eventually opened its doors to gentlemen. It remained there until at least 1910.

By 1916, however, it was home to Edward O’Neil Retail Liquors. The space was for lease again in 1919 — the same year that Roosevelt died at the age of 60. Coincidence? Probably. In 1922, it was home to the Crystal Grill. In 1938, it was reported in a newspaper that a ten-year lease had been signed by a “Minnesotan concern” who intended to renovate the space and re-open it as a “restaurant and cocktail bar” on 1 January 1939. Not long after, a writer for The Coast wrote a short review of a bar called the Golden Gopher. “This is a brand new downtown drinkery. It is a swell place to drop into after the movies and is very centrally located.” The bar’s name, of course, referred to the mascot of a Minnesotan college football team. It has been the Golden Gopher ever since. I don’t know when the sign was created, but it certainly looks period-appropriate for the Art Deco era.

In 2004, the bar was purchased and renovated by the 213 Hospitality Group. I reckon they did a fine job. I’ve been there a handful of times since, including once, when I went with my brother, and he abandoned me after I fell in with a bunch of charming Atwater hairdressers celebrating their annual holiday party. What would Teddy Roosevelt have thought?

GETTING THERE

The Golden Gopher is served by AVTA‘s 785 Line; LADOT‘s Commuter Express 419 and 439 lines, Metro‘s 4, 10, 14, 48, 66, 70, 76, 78, and 81 lines; as well as many others if you’re able to walk more than a block.


THE IDLE HOUR (1941)

The Idle Hour opened in 1941. It was owned by Universal Studios film technician Michael D. Connolly who commissioned engineer George F. Fordy to build it. In the 1960s, it changed to La Cana Flamenco. An example of programmatic architecture, it was designed to resemble a giant whiskey barrel. In 2010, it was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 977. It was restored and renovated by the 1933 Group.

GETTING THERE

The Idles Hour is served bty Metro‘s B, 224, and Express 501 lines.


JAY DEE CAFE (1944)

Vincent JamesJim” Lima and Edward Eddie” A. Krall opened the Jay Dee Cafe in 1944. The location was previously home to another bar, Elgin’s. It’s name was an hommage to another San Gabriel Valley bar at which Krall and Lima had been regulars, which shared the initionals “J” and “D.” Locally famed for its burgers, in 1973, they added Chinese food to the menu under the supervision of chef Joe Wong, formerly of George Lim’s. Jim Lima died in 1981 and his son, Frank Lima, rand it. Frank died in 2004. It was taken over by wife-and-husband team, Stephanie Wilkins and Jose Jorge around 2007.

GETTING THERE

Jay Dee Cafe is served by Metro‘s 83 Line.


THE KING EDDY SALOON (1906)

The glamorous King Edward Hotel, designed by the celebrated John Parkinson, opened on 15 March 1906, with an hotel bar, The King Edward Bar, operated by partners D.B. Jerrue and William H. Hevren, who’d made his way from Connecticut to Los Angeles by the mid-1890s. Jerrue was subsequently replaced by Clarence D. Richardson. The partners closed the bar in 1918, as California began to go dry. During Prohibition, it moved to the basement where it operated as a speakeasy nicknamed the King Edward Cellar. The walls of the former speakeasy were decorated with charming Bavarian-themed murals that still exist. Upstairs, the plate-glass windows were removed and filled in in 1923 and a piano store moved into the vacated bar room.

The LAPD were not only aware of bootlegging and speakeasies, but they were also deeply involved. Hevren, in addition to running The King Edward, was the chairman of the police commission in Avalon and a member of that town’s board of trustees. In 1929, he was fined $3,000 (about $49,000 in 2021, adjusted for inflation) for operating a gambling house on his property. In the trial, Hevren was quoted as having bragged to one of his criminal associates, “It is just as easy to run a bootlegging or gambling establishment as a grocery store, if you pay your way. Why don’t you join in the gambling?’

Hevren died in 1931, before the bar reemerged, on Repeal Day in 1933 as The King Edward Grill. The speakeasy reverted to a storage space. Around 1960, parking lot operator Babe Croik and a business partner took over expanded it into a former barbershop. It’s likely that it was at this time that was renamed the King Eddy Saloon — the name it retains today. In 1969, Croik took over sole ownership, afterward run by his son, and afterward by his son, Dustin. It was managed by bartender Bill Roller, who lived upstairs, since around 1982. In 2012, it was purchased by the ACME Hospitality Group. In 2018, the building was purchased by the Healthy Housing Foundation and, around then, the bar was taken over by Chris Kasten.

GETTING THERE

The King Eddy is served by Metro‘s 16, 18, 33, 53, 60, 62, 92, and 720 lines, LADOT‘s DASH Downtown Route D; and the the 460 (Disneyland) bus.


JOE JOST (1924)

Opened in 1924. Joe Jost arrived from the Balkans to New York City at the age of sixteen where he got a job as a barber. From there he continued west until he met his wife, Edith McKean, in Upland. They married in 1917. After returning from World War I, he first established Joe Jost’s in Newport Beach in 1920. Since it was during Prohibition, he sold candy, ice cream, cigarettes, and near beer. In 1924, he relocated to Long Beach, where his establishment was a combination poker and pool hall/barbershop. Then as now, there was food, too, although that old bar staple of pickled eggs are the most popular item on the menu. There’s also the special (Polish sausage, Swiss cheese, pickle, and mustard on rye). When Prohibition was repealed, he began selling beer. It was decided that alcohol and cutting hair don’t mix well and so the barbershop aspect was retired. He later retired, himself, to Desert Hot Springs and later, Leisure World. He passed away in 1975. Joe Jost’s remained a family operation, first with Joe Jr. running it and now Jost Sr.’s grandson, Ken Buck. A second location existed from 1979 until 1991. Add Joe Jost to my list of vintage bars to check out.

GETTING THERE

Joe Jost’s is served by Long Beach Transit‘s 41, 45, and 46 lines. Assuming it’ll still be around in seven years (a safe bet) and that Metro’s Santa Ana Branch Corridor Project is completed according to schedule (a riskier bet), there will be a train line passing by in 2028.

MICELI’S (1949)

Carmen Miceli was born in Chicago on 17 March 1923 to immigrants from Sicily. After serving in World War II, Miceli moved to Los Angeles in 1946, where he first worked as a waiter at Ciro’s. He opened his pizzeria, Miceli’s, in 1949. The wooden booths, stools, and wall panels were purchased from the nearby location of the Pig ‘n Whistle chain, which closed in 1952. A Universal City location opened in 1980. Miceli died in 2015.

GETTING THERE

Miceli’s is served by Metro’s 212 and 217 lines.


MUSSO & FRANK (1917)

The building in which Musso & Frank Grill is located was designed by L. A. Smith and built in 1917. It was opened by Frank Toulet in 1919 as Frank’s French Café. After partnering with Joseph Musso, the name changed to Musso & Frank Grill in 1923. In 1927, it was sold to Joseph Carissimi and John Mosso, who moved next door. The “Back Room” opened in 1934. It was given a Hollywood Regency makeover in 1937. In 1955, after the lease expired, the mahogany bar from the back room was moved to the “new room,” where it remains. In 2019, Ruben Rueda, a Musso & Frank bartending legend since 1970, passed away at the age of 67. He’d worked there even longer, having first been hired as an assistant server at the age of fifteen. Many of the staff at the bar are legendary, though, and I don’t remember who served me the last martini I had there, but I remember the bartender confidently said something like, “Now tell me if that isn’t the best martini you’ve ever had” and I didn’t argue.

GETTING THERE

Musso & Frank Grill is served by Metro‘s B, 212, 217, and 224 lines as well as LADOT‘s DASH Hollywood Line.


THE RENO ROOM

The Reno Room opened in 1945.

GETTING THERE

The Reno Room is served by Long Beach Transit‘s 111, 112, and 131 lines.


THE ROCK INN (1929, bar added at unknown date)

Massachusetts-born army veteran Joel Hurd, Sr. moved with his family to Lake Hughes in 1926. Hurd took a job at B. Brannon‘s market. Meanwhile, from 1927 to 1929, he constructed a striking stone building across the street. Brannon’s market burned down in April 1928 and salvaged merchandise was moved across the road to what opened as The Lake Hughes Trading Post. Over the years, it served as an inn, a bus station, a general store, a post office, and a gas station — although I don’t believe that the gas pumps outside have operated in many years.

Around 1951, Hurd became the town postmaster and his sons Joel Jr. and Chuck took over the inn, living upstairs after the lodging was no longer made available to guests. Adrian and Delores “Dee” Shrout ran the inn after the Hurds retired. Around 1972, German-Canadian character actor Paul Koslo, his brother, and his sister-in-law bought the Trading Post. Koslo’s partner’s lost interest and by 1975 he assumed sole ownership. By then, it was colloquially known as the “Rock Bar” or the “Rock House.” It formally acquired the name, The Rock Inn, in 1983. After completing the filming of his part in Loose Cannons, Koslo finished renovating the guest quarters upstairs and made them available again to lodgers. Koslo died in 2019. It’s now run by Warren St. John.

I’ve been to the Rock Inn quite a few times. I love the Lake Towns of Northeast Los Angeles. And, although I’m normally not a fan of internet jukeboxes, Una once chose Blur and Pulp songs which may or may not’ve been the first time any of their songs played there.

GETTING THERE

The Rock Inn, located on Elizabeth Lake Road, is not served by mass transit. Most visitors arrive by motorcycle. Last time, I went, they had just dropped cinders on the highway to melt the snow. We asked the worker, parked at Three Points, how long we’d have to wait. He ushered us through, philosophically observing “Go ahead. Ain’t nothing gonna change.”


THE STAG BAR

The Stag Bar opened in 1908, as a hotel bar. It acquired a full liquor license in 1914 and at that time debuted its 100-foot-long mahogany bar. It survived Prohibition by operating as a pool hall renamed The Stage Cafe. Sarsaparilla became the house beverage but it was rumored to have also sold bootlegged beer. After Prohibition was repealed, it got an Art Deco makeover. In 2006, owner Mario Marovic changed its name to The District Lounge. It was restored and expanded in 2014, debuting its new kitchen in 2015. When it reopened it was with the name The Stag Bar + Kitchen.

GETTING THERE

The Stag Bar + Hotel is served by OCTA‘s 47 Line.


TAM O’SHANTER (1922, bar since 1950)

In 1922, Joe Montgomery, Lawrence L. Frank, Walter Van de Kamp opened Montgomery’s Country Inn. It was designed by Hollywood set designer, Harry Oliver. The name was changed, in 1923, to Montgomery’s Chanticleer Inn. It was in 1925 that it was again renamed, this time The Tam o’ Shanter Inn although back then, there was no bar.

Lawrence Frank went on to found Lawry’s Restaurant in 1938. Frank’s son, Richard N. Frank, joined the staff in 1950. It was the younger Frank who added the “ale & sandwich bar.” It was also the younger Frank who renamed the restaurant The Great Scott in 1968. It reverted to the Tam o’ Shanter in 1982.

The Tam o’ Shanter has that pre-Disney Southern California simulacra thing going and I highly recommend going there. Naturally, Disney himself was supposedly a huge fan. I’ve been there numerous times, most recently with Jared Cohee of Eat the World Los Angeles.

GETTING THERE

The Tam O’ Shanter is served by Metro‘s 180 Line.


TOM BERGIN’S (1936)

Tom Bergin was born in 1894 in Boston to immigrants from County Kerry. He was an aviator in the Naval Airforce in World War I. With a degree from Boston University, he came to Los Angeles in 1927 and worked as an entertainment lawyer. He was a fan of horse racing and a regular at the Del Mar racetrack. He obtained a liquor license on 11 February 1935 and opened Old Horseshoe Tavern & Thoroughbred Club at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax in 1936 but it quickly came to be known, popularly, as Tom Bergin’s Tavern. In 1945, with an eye on expansion, Bergin bought a property further south down Fairfax and commissioned the construction of the Tudor Revival structure into which Tom Bergin’s moved his tavern in 1949.

In 1957, regular patron Bud Wiser (apparently his real name) placed a shamrock above the bar with his name on it. Thus began a tradition. Bergin retired in 1973 and sold the tavern to Mike Mandekic and T.K. Vodrey. Bergin died on 25 October 1978, Brandon Boudet and Warner Ebbink bought in 2011 and took it upscale. It closed in 2013 and new owner, Derek Schreck re-opened it in 2014, with a members-only whiskey club called the Vestry upstairs. it closed again in 2018. It was designated an Historical Cultural Monument in 2019. It was sold again not long to Fran and Dave Castagnetti.

Una and I once saw a guy interrupt The Edge‘s dinner to hand him a business card and ask him about scoring his YouTube videos. No matter what you think of U2, the fact that he was gracious and said he’d check it out has to earn him some points with Saint Peter. Another time I popped in for a History Happy Hour and most of the Fellowship of the Ring were there having a reunion.

GETTING THERE

Tom Bergin’s is served by Metro‘s 28 and 217 lines. Wilshire/Fairfax Station is set to open along the D Line in 2023.



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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Swinging Doors — Los Angeles’s Oldest Bars

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