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Friday, September 23, 2011

A Salute To L.A.'s Best 'Dive Bars'!

At 5:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the Enabler nursed a stiff vodka and soda at the Backstage bar in Culver City, which calls itself "the best dive bar in the world." She was sitting between an artist named Neil Wax, who was gearing up for a show at Bergamot Station, and a churlish old lady who was on her third martini. The old lady was talking to a beefy, bearded guy who regularly said things like, "This is what the government is going to do: They're going to breed this virus and put us all in cages."
Backstage Bar & Grill Head bartender Steve Chen mixes a drink for patrons at the Backstage Bar & Grill in Culver City.

This is what the Enabler had come for: the heady eclecticism that flourishes in a good dive bar. While Hollywood's high and mighty sweat over putting the "right" mix of people on their elitist lists, dive bars naturally curate themselves. Here are the rank and file, the locals, the characters, the people. These days, dive bars are also places of creeping irony, as they become discovered by those seeking to capitalize on the hipster thirst for all things trashy and retro and authentic. Which sets off instant alarm bells: Will the dive survive?

To celebrate the unbreakable spirit of the dive, the Enabler spent several weeks visiting her favorites and discovering new ones. She drank 6 a.m. beers at the Drawing Room in Los Feliz; tippled at the Tango Room in MacArthur Park; sulked at King Eddy Saloon near skid row; relaxed at Gold Coast in WeHo and had an unexpectedly licentious night at Sam's Hofbrau, a bizarre and sprawling strip club on the industrial outskirts of L.A.

A good dive has to be "trapped in time," said Tony Lovett, co-author of "L.A. Bizarro: The Insider's Guide to the Obscure, the Absurd and the Perverse in Los Angeles," which has a marvelous chapter on dive bars. "And to people like us they are preferable to the alternatives, which are either meat markets or ridiculously modern."

Yes, it's about cheap drinks — but not only that. It's about the company. The Enabler's research reified what had drawn her to dives since her days as an underage drinker: The people are not trying to be anything they're not. Or, even if one's persona is wildly constructed, at least it's interesting.

At the Gold Coast's marbled bar dotted with brass pig heads, the Enabler chatted with a man named Robert Sherman, who as his drag queen alter ego Constance Cooper, had been the fearsome maitre d' at Bar Marmont in the '90s, when it was among the hottest doors in town.

Sherman, who as a young man in New York City also modeled for Robert Mapplethorpe, said he enjoys Gold Coast for its "earthiness" and because, "You never know who you'll see in here. I brought Angie Bowie in the other night."

The thought of David Bowie's famous ex-wife at Gold Coast was soothing to the Enabler. Just as soothing as the interior of the Backstage, which is fairly adept at mingling old-school earnestness with new-school irony while retaining many essential dive bar prerequisites, including a soiled industrial carpet; Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox; cracked bar stools; a pool table; plastic pitchers of Bud Light; and a toilet that makes you think twice about sitting down.

One of her best nights was spent at King Eddy, which is the last of skid row's many dive bars. (Rest in peace, Craby Joe's.) There she listened to bartenders Nikki Driscoll and Victor Hernandez tell stories while a heavily perfumed homeless woman mumbled into her whiskey.

"Crazy crack heads sometimes come in here and wild out," said Driscoll, pouring the Enabler another $2.50 vodka and soda from a cheap-looking bottle. "I just tell them to go and they do. They know they can come back tomorrow, they just have to go right then."

Driscoll, who is young and attractive with a tough demeanor and a raspy voice, turned down a possible job at the very hip Mas Malo because she was "holding out for King Eddy's."

"I like that weird, grimy side of life," she said and the Enabler nodded, charmed.

Hernandez, who has worked at King Eddy for five years, talked about how Charles Bukowski and John Fante used to sit at the bar. "A lot of artists come in here," he added. "They are trying to refresh the mind."

Still, the bar is busiest during the first two weeks of each month, Driscoll said, acknowledging the dark side of dives. "It has to do with when their Social Security checks come in." She paused, midway through pouring a frozen margarita, "But if this is really your lot on life, I say take it to the bar."

King Eddy is rare in that it's one of a handful of dives the Enabler frequents where you're not likely to stumble across someone secretly composing their next Facebook status update. But perhaps the Enabler's presence was proof these worlds can coexist. If she could be in this place, engaged in what beer blogger and dive bar aficionado Alex Brown happily calls "a Manifest Destiny search for sleaze," then the place could probably absorb a certain number of tourists and adventurers. Yes, there could be a tipping point, when a hipster influx could ruin the vibe. But maybe places like King Eddy were just too hard core.

The Enabler will drink a shot of Canadian Mist to that............


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