Houston in Hollywood – Part II
It was a balmy Tuesday night in Los Angeles, and the air was thick. The heat was steaming off the hot Hollywood pavement, as we meandered our way down the main boulevard. My wife and I were due to meet Linzie, director of events for Houston Hospitality, at Butchers and Barbers for a late dinner on Tuesday evening, but I wanted to get there a bit early to have a drink at the bar. Located on Hollywood Boulevard at the end of Schrader, the building is a bit of a four-storied oddity, but the interior of the restaurant couldn’t be more classically soothing. The lighting is low, the walls a warming sheath of exposed brick, and the bar itself a polished mahogany. The mood is comfortable, but classy. We grabbed a seat on two of the stools and looked over the cocktail menu.
Butchers and Barbers is the most casual and straight-forward establishment of of the Houston portfolio; a standard American bistro serving burgers, steaks, and hearty cuisine alongside a stellar selection of drinks. My wife, always a sucker for tropical flavors and anything with coconut, went for the Oddly Beautiful—a gin-based tall drink made with jackfruit, coconut cream, lemon juice, and topped with a purple yam foam. I was hooked in by The Time is Ripe—another gin-based concoction with creme de peche, honey, lemon juice, and thyme. The presentation just was as wonderful as the cocktail itself, in that the sprig of thyme rested sturdily atop the giant cube of ice anchored in the middle of my glass. The placement allowed me to whiff some of the dried herb before actually tasting the cocktail itself, which only enhanced the flavors when they did explode on my tongue. The combination of savory herbs with lemon and honey created something like an alcoholic Ricola throat lozenge; and a delicious one at that! You could tell that lot of thought went into this drink, and I definitely appreciated it.
When Linzie arrived we grabbed a table in the corner, grabbed more drinks (the Gold Hat—tequila with habanero-infused Falernum, grapefruit, raspberry, and lime), and ordered some snacks for the table. A basket of popcorn arrived covered in roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme oil (but it might as well have been slathered with crack-cocaine) and we demolished that in minutes. Small plates of roasted cauliflower soon followed. The conversation flowed effortlessly, as the waitstaff continued to refill the empty vessels that perished in our wake. The atmosphere was completely conducive for socialization and I think all three of us were all reveling in it.
We continued chatting and drinking, discussing the dynamics of the Houston brothers business, as more food arrived. A classic bistro burger, along with a cherry tomato salad with burrata, roasted fingerling potatoes, and a crudité of trout. My biggest pet peeve when it comes to cocktail bar/restaurants is always the lack of sufficient sustenance, but there were no issues here. We were fortified against the long evening ahead, and there were no hankerings or late-night cravings to follow. Both hunger and thirst had been well satiated by a classic and well-executed menu of standard favorites. I would definitely put Butchers and Barbers on my short list of double-date destinations.
Upon exiting Butchers and Barbers, we hung a left on North Hudson and began walking along the side of the quirky building, towards a dark staircase that headed down into the bowels of the facade. Two men were smoking cigarettes at the top of the flight, checking IDs and making sure all comers were acceptable. There is a dress code at almost all of the Houston establishments, and most of them do not allow flip-flops. Linzie began talking to the gentlemen, before telling us that we'd reached the entrance of Dirty Laundry. We would need a code to get in, however, as the door at the bottom of the stairs contains an electronic pad, requiring the correct information upon entry. It would be the first of many clever and creative entrances that to follow. Linzie pushed the buttons and opened the door into the throbbing bass of dance music and a narrow, darkened room with innate tile work floors, stone mason walls, and a ceiling of brick and dark wood; the bartender contrasted against the white-tiled back bar, focusing intently on his craft.
We walked through the entrance way and around the bar, past a live DJ, and into a separate back room where dozens of onlookers sat comfortably on leather couches, watching the performance at the back of a second narrow chamber. A slideshow was projecting colors, patterns, and light onto the performers and the wall behind them. The music was shockingly good; a combination of Twin Shadow-style, Prince-influenced dance with modern beats and electronic synth. My wife and I were transfixed. “I would hang out here every single night if this is a normal Tuesday,” I said to her. She nodded in agreement. We never just wander into anything this cool in the Bay Area—at least not without a snarky crowd of straight-faced scenesters preventing our advancement into the space. The mood at Dirty Laundry was light and carefree, despite the secretive vibe. No one seemed to be putting on airs, just dancing and having a good time.
After leaving Dirty Laundry, we continued past the main building and around the block towards a dim parking lot, illuminated almost entirely by a neon red light. There were valets scurrying to and fro in the darkness, and as we approached the main entrance I realized we were standing at the back of an extraordinarily old Victorian mansion. “It’s actually a historical site called the Jane House,” Linzie told us as we made our way to the front. Built in 1902, the building is the oldest in Hollywood, named after the James family from Illinois who purchased the home thereafter. I noticed that the bouncer was allowing groups to enter the door systematically, waiting at least a minute or more before allowing more people to enter—almost like the guard at the top of each waterslide who makes sure the kids all wait their turn. I realized why this was happening as we made our way up the stairs and into the main hallway. In a way, No Vacancy is very much a theme park, and a tribute to the eclectic history of the site.
As we walked down the creaky, wooden shaft there were three doors on our left to choose from; each containing a different diorama of pre-prohibition kitsch. I approached the last door, opened it cautiously, and escorted my wife and Linzie into the small brothel room that awaited us. Inside sat an old-timey madam, who greeted us with a bit of sass, before asking us to guess how we might go into the speakeasy from here. My wife guessed correctly; there was indeed a hidden entrance under the bed. The woman hit the switch, the bed lifted and moved into the wall, and down the rabbit hole we went.
Much like Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, No Vacancy is simply a house that happens to have a bar in it. You can into different rooms, up and down a flight of stairs, and into the main parlor for drinks. The bartenders are incredibly-skilled and nothing but polite to all visitors, introducing a bevy of well-made beverages to a crowd that might normally just ask for a vodka tonic. In my mind, that’s how everyone in the booze should be looking to expand their reach: by casting a wider net under the auspices of a memorable experience, then slowly indoctrinating those visitors with care and sincerity. As Kevin Costner was once told by a whispering voice only he could here: “If you build it, they will come.” Once they start coming, it's up to you to serve them the drink of their life, curate their expectations, and before you know it they’ll be requesting Chartreuse.
The back patio behind the old Victorian is incredible. On such a warm summer evening there was really no other place I would have rather been. The space has its own bar separate from the main house, and there are strings of lights, comfortable chairs, and plenty of friendly folks chatting the night away. Everyone there was in a fantastic mood. But, really, how could they not have been? No Vacancy is the kind of place where you can come early, grab a seat and have an intimate conversation, or show up late and just people-watch as the masses continue to pack their way in. We grabbed a quick gin and ginger before getting the call from Mark, who was waiting for us over at Davey Wayne’s. We hopped in a cab and made our way down Hollywood Boulvard towards the brothers' ultimate homage.
I’ve explained the scenario a hundred times to my friends and family, but I’ve never had the actual pictures to accompany the description (so this should be fun). Here's the situation: there’s a house on Vista del Mar Street, just a few blocks over from our Hollywood store. You know there’s some sort of party going on because you can hear the music from the street and there’s a gang of people standing out in front, but it's difficult to tell just what exactly is happening.
As you walk up to the front of the house and you can see that the garage door is open. There are a few odds and ends on the walls, a dim lamp that reveals a bit of storage in the lowlight, and a fridge that sits at the back of the unit. But where’s the party? "Why don’t you open the fridge and grab yourself a beer before you ask such questions," says the guy out in front. But wait! That's not really a refrigerator full of beer, but rather the door that leads you into the gigantic house party that is Good Times at Davey Wayne’s—Davey Wayne being the name of Mark and Jonnie’s late father. It’s a tribute to the man of the house; a testament to all the childhood memories and nostalgia that the two brothers have for their late father—a man who always had a cold one waiting for him out in the garage.
The entire exerience at Davey Wayne's is like a giant party, rather than the typical bar experience. The vibe is incredible, full of energy and life. There’s a standard bar in the right side of the main house, and out back there’s a trailer which—as Mark would later tell me—represents where his father used to sleep when he was in the doghouse. Both their father’s original trailer and the current one located at Davey Wayne’s have seen their share of alcohol. This one just happens to have a window where you can walk up and order a drink. Mark met us for tequila snowcones in the backyard and we quickly continued our conversation from a few months back. We talked about the importance of mood and atmosphere and the superiority of lasting memories over the fickle fade of just another well-made drink. We discussed the excitement of cross-genre collaborations and shared stories about current projects, continuing to find common ground on philosophies grounded in the aesthetics of curation. Mark has no desire to be up in the office, looking through invoices, while the rest of the staff operates the show. He wants to be right smack in the middle of the party, looking to provide a top-notch experience first-hand (and he does so just about every night of the week). Both he and his brother want the message to be on point, which is why they are personally involved in shaping the experiences of their visitors. It’s a level of commitment and a willingness to grind that you don’t run across very often. You generally find it only in people who truly love what they’re doing. It’s contagious and I want nothing more than to stay as close to that energy for as long as possible.
But ultimately we needed to get back to our hotel and rest up for the day ahead of us. We bid Mark and Linzie adieu, thanked them both for a wonderful evening, and walked the three blocks back over to Vine Street. We still had another round to go the following night.