Monday, August 13, 2012

Let's Talk Dives...

Ladies and gentlemen pull up a chair - or rather a bar stool - as the subject of this month's missive is...dives. No, not that kind. I know the Olympics just ended and this is supposed to be a sports-related blog, but I mean real dives. The kind of place that you might not bring your parents or a first date to, but which otherwise fits you like a glove. A really comfortable, tipsy glove. Every one's definition of what makes a good dive is different, but here's my criteria: 1. It must be relatively cheap. 2. It must be free of pretension. It is exactly what it is - no more, no less. 3. It must be immune to gentrification or hipsterization (ok, I made that word up, but it describes a real social ill). 4. It must attract characters - both as patrons and employees. 5. (and this one is really important): It must make both regulars and newcomers feel welcome.

I happen to be in Los Angeles while I write this, so I will discuss two of my favorite L.A. dives, Chez Jay's in Santa Monica, and the HMS Bounty in Koreatown. I discovered each of these joints quite by accident and have returned to both countless times and have never been disappointed. First, Chez Jay. I first stumbled into this little seafood shack across from Santa Monica pier in the early 90s, but Jay's has been serving stiff drinks and seafood to folks since locals pronounced a hard "g" in "Los Angeles". I will never forget the way owner Jay Fiorendella greeted me at the Dutch door entryway the first time, resplendent in a suit with open-necked shirt - with the words "Hello, I'm Jay". (OK, not very dive-like, but bear with me). The crunch of peanuts and sawdust on the floor, red and white checked tablecloths, and seafairing bric-a-brac on the walls sets the mood. A bar takes up most of the space on the left side. The food here will never receive a Michelin star, but it's quite serviceable (the Steak Sinatra is my personal favorite), and when combined with the low lighting and 1960s ambience (I'm talking Mad Men 60s, not Haight-Ashbury 60s) more than makes up for any lack of haute cuisine aspirations. On one of my early visits I was chatting with Jay when he pointed to a  stool a few yards away. "See that chair?", he said. "That's where Angie Dickinson would wait for a call from Peter Lawford telling her where to go meet Jack." (That's Jack, as in Kennedy. The young president was also rumored to favor the private back room for trysts). On my last visit, in October, I was saddened to learn that Jay had passed away a few years ago. But the place was still going strong. Steak Sinatra was still on the menu, and the same faded UCLA pennants were on the wall, next to the ancient metal diving suits. The jukebox shuffled from Chuck Berry to Roy Orbison to Steppenwolf. The lovely bartender was cracking wise, and when a hipster asked for an "energy drink" we all held our collective breath. "This is a bar, honey", was all she said. It sure is.

Note: I just read that wrong-headed civic planners (read "morons") are trying to have Chez Jay's replaced by a more tourist and family friendly restaurant (as if Santa Monica doesn't have enough of those). Read about it here.

I had the pleasure of discovering the HMS Bounty more recently when I started using Koreatown as my base during my L.A business trips. This stretch of Wilshire Blvd. is a treat for Los Angeles history buffs. The famed Brown Derby restaurant was next door, and the Ambassador Hotel, site of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968 was across the street, as was the Coconut Grove nightclub. Founded in 1948, the Bounty was at different times a haven for sports bookies, and one of L.A.'s great pick-up bars (due to all the single gals living in the nearby apartment buildings in the 1960s). The Bounty itself is nestled in the lovely art deco Gaylord Apartment building, still home to aspiring actors and other interesting Angelenos of all stripes. Baseball games play on flatscreen TV's in the corners, but this is the Bounty's only concession to modernity. Another nautically-themed establishment (a thing with me, I guess), the HMS Bounty attracts an interesting combination of lower show biz life, hipsters, and Gaylord residents. I was there on a Monday night recently and the place was crawling with old jazzmen talking shop. If you squint in the light of the nautical lanterns you will see photos on the wall of long-forgotten sax players ("Corky Corcoran - Sensational Young Tenor Star - Endorses Conn Saxophones"), or 1940s entertainers like the Harry James Orchestra. The great jukebox follows suit, with selections by Dean Martin, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. For serious diners, there is a separate formal dining room, which is rarely used. I prefer to take my meals at the bar or at one of the big banquettes in the same room. Best of all, the bartenders and servers always seem to be having as much fun as the patrons. When nature calls (which it surely will after your third gin and tonic), one steps through a side door into the ornate lobby of the Gaylord where the public facilities are located. One can meander (or stumble) back toward the HMS while appreciating the fine architectural details as well as the historic photographs of the building (so you can get your buzz on and your culture in one setting). I was just there before writing this, and I'm going back tomorrow.

What are some of your favorite dives? Let me know and maybe I'll post some of them (or better yet, visit). Until next time, pass the nuts.