A toast to the good old days

Across L.A., bars and clubs are toasting to the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s with retro drinks and speak-easy themes.

Tonight, somewhere in L.A., they are partying like it’s 1929.

Whether it’s the spirit of the Roaring ’20s or the Great Depression that followed the Crash of ’29 — or, oddly, both at once — the trend of vintage bars in Southern California has reached a fever pitch. Even state-of-the-art modern clubs can’t resist throwing in thematic elements to appeal to clubbers thirsty for a more rebellious and dressed-up era.

“It conjures deep cinematic fantasies from that period,” says Julian Leuthold, astudent at USC who goes to the retro Edison bar downtown. “The people were impeccably dressed, and more broadly, it was the public’s first peek into the lives of the uber-chic.”

Three years ago, it was nearly impossible to find vintage cocktails in L.A., much less bars evocative of the early 1900s. Now, you can’t throw a martini shaker without hitting a drinking establishment that’s in homage to the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s. And it seems quite clear that fears of another depression and a good dollop of future anxiety have fueled the trend.

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“People are both dazzled and terrified by the world,” as they were back then, says Edison owner Andrew Meieran. “That’s reflected in what they want to do in their leisure time. These bars remind people of the past, but it’s also forward-looking.”

Crowds are flocking to Bar Chloe, a French-kissed venue in Santa Monica that serves Sazeracs and sidecars; the Kress, a multilevel club recently restored to its original 1934 glory; Bar Delux, an Art Deco replica, from Spacecraft hospitality group’s Kristofer Keith; and promoter Jenn Laskey’s recurring party Era, which pays homage to the ’20s in different L.A. historic spots.

Even venues that were actually open during those times have jumped on the bandwagon. Santa Monica’s Casa Del Mar, built in 1926, just put in a Zoltar fortune-telling machine, and Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard plans to extend its weekend hours to 2 a.m. for jazz. “We have never had music in the bar at Musso’s in the 90 years we have been around,” says owner Jordan M. Jones.

In addition, anything with the word “speak-easy” in it is popular.

“These days, a single-malt tasting wouldn’t bring the same crowd as, say, a ‘speak-easy’ single-malt tasting,” says Dan Silberstein, an event producer whose company, called Drink:Eat:Play, hosted a Roaring ’20s party Saturday at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. “The speak-easy trend is becoming way trendy.”

And getting trendier. In December, Mark Peel will open a ’40s-inspired cocktail hub on La Brea, called the Tar Pit. That’ll be followed by an interpretation of Gertrude Stein’s 1920s Paris saloon, opening in the mega dance club formerly known as Ivar. And, permits allowing, Louie and Nettie Ryan will reopen the speak-easy below Townhouse Cocktails in Venice within six months.

In some ways, the current trend started years ago when folks like Cedd Moses, owner of the Varnish and several other period bars, began approaching his venues as cocktail historians and revivalists. These days, many bars are taking a more liberal interpretation of the past — mixing and matching eras as they please.

Hollywood’s Madame Royale, for example, is described by owner Gianni Capaldi as being ’20s-themed, even though the bar draws from a range of eras, including the can-can dancers of the 1890s and the drive-in waitresses of the ’50s. Those are just minor details for Capaldi, who reinterprets his bar on Yucca Street as trends change. In fact, the space was the Red Buddha Lounge during the L.A. heyday of Japanese-inspired clubs such as White Lotus. Later, as video gaming became hipper, Capaldi painted the bar silver and renamed it Play.

“This is just like the Moroccan- and Asian-inspired venues from a decade ago. It’s authentic and real,” Townhouse’s Louie Ryan says of the overall trend. “The over-produced, spoiled hip-hop era? It’s an antidote to that.”

Even as bars look to the past, they are not ignoring the future. Just as the early 20th century was turbulent and uncertain, it was also infused with the spirit of artistic and technological invention.

Perhaps that’s why Marbella, another new venue using the term “Roaring ’20s” in its promotional materials, has decided to embrace its history while flipping the conventional Hollywood club model on its head.

First-time club owner Mehdi Bolour, a real estate mogul, restored the four-level space to resemble its first incarnation as the Montmartre Lounge, where Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby reportedly partied. The upstairs portion is decked out in chocolate brown furniture, amber lights, arched ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the neon lights of Hollywood Boulevard. In the basement, Bolour’s building an intimate jazz club; above that, there’s a Moroccan restaurant on its way. For now, the ground floor is rented out for high-profile parties.

The innovation planned by Bolour and his event director, Jamie Salen, is to use Marbella as an event space from the outset, rather than focusing strictly on club nights.

“Most nightclubs only start doing large-scale events when they’re desperate to give their space an extra year [of life],” says Salen, who plans to roll out promoter-driven nights slowly when the club officially opens in December. (To get the buzz going, there are sneak peek events tonight and Saturday.) “Every event only happens once. It won’t be like a club where the same thing happens every night.”

Published in The Los Angeles Times on November 13, 2009.