Houston in Hollywood – Part III
After spending my morning at the Hollywood store and later indulging in a lovely dinner at Cleo—the Mediterranean hotspot located inside the Redbury Hotel—my wife and I caught a cab over to the east side of Hollywood and the home of La Descarga: the original Houston brothers creation. Previously home to a dive bar on a rather unsavory part of North Western Ave, the space now constitutes one of the most immaculate and romantic speakeasy-style locations in the country. What looks unassuming and rather ordinary on the outside is actually a full-scale, Cuban-inspired sensation on the interior. We pulled up to the lone doorman sitting casually next to a latino restaurant where men were cooking carne al pastor out in front. “We’ve been expecting you, David,” the man said with a smile as he opened the door. We ascended the stairs and walked squarely into another piece of Houston brothers kitsch—a gorgeous latina woman wearing a red dress and a rose in her hair greeted us in Havana-styled apartment circa 1920. “Welcome to La Descarga,” she said, before opening the armoire doors against the wall, pulling aside the hanging clothes, and leading us into the colonial era veranda via the surreptitious passage.
As you enter into the main room of La Descarga and walk along the balcony, you get a stunning glimpse down at the bar stocked heavily with a well-curated selection of rum and tequila. By design, we were the first to arrive that evening, allowing us some private time to photograph the aesthetics and chat a bit with the bartenders. The boys were preparing some new drinks for an upcoming menu and asked if we’d like to sample some of the selections. A Flan-Flip immediately caught my wife’s attention, being the lover of custard that she is. I offered to be the guinea pig for a mango-flavored concoction using both gin and vodka as a base and featuring a variety of tropical ingredients. Both were delicious and forward-thinking in design. They were familiar, yet excitingly different. That’s all I can ask for these days.
I judge any establishment by how hospitable they are when they’re slow, rather than when they’re busy. I would hate to be reviewed for my customer service while under severe duress, facing a mob of queued-up customers while attempting to answer a flurry of casually-flung questions. We should all be at our best when the situation is calm and tranquil, and the bartenders at La Descarga did not disappoint. They were friendly, welcoming, and intent on bringing us into the environment. If you’re someone who wants to enjoy the low-lit, romantic environment of the small space, I’d recommend getting there right as they open. Very few people wandered in before nine, and the band doesn’t arrive to start playing until ten. If you stick around until later, however, you can indulge in the live music, salsa dancing, and festive atmosphere of the fiery Cuban night. You can dictate your own personal preference for chaos by simply planning your night around the crowd.
For me, the original Houston brothers joint is another lesson in careful curation. I can’t believe that anyone is going to La Descarga because of their excellent rum selection, or because you can get a Margarita made with Cimarron tequila. They’re going to La Descarga because of the decor, the mood, and the atmosphere. It just so happens that you can sample a diverse variety of high-end rum and have a Cimarron Margarita while you’re there, which is—in essence—the exact same experience we’re striving to present to the customers at K&L. I don’t want people to come to the Redwood City store simply because we have the lowest price on Ardbeg, or a great deal on Grey Goose. I want them to come because we’re friendly, knowledgeable, and we provide an engaging selection of spirits along with a high level of customer service. If we also happen to have the best price on Ardbeg, that’s just an added bonus! Everything begins with curation, in my opinion. If you can add value to that equation, then you’re really doing your job well. La Descarga is a destination spot, in my book. I would make an effort to come here often if I lived in LA, just to bask in all the atmosphere and casually talk to friends.
We were loath to leave La Descarga as we were having such an intimate and enjoyable time, but we needed to visit the last stop on the Houston express before calling it a night. We hailed a cab and headed down to Break Room 86, located just a few miles directly south near Wilshire in Koreatown. Like many things in Los Angeles, the 80s-themed night club is positioned in an unsuspecting area; behind the Line Hotel with a completely unassuming entrance. Again, the only sign of life is the small huddle of folks waiting to get inside and the lone doorman guarding the way. Upon arrival, we were escorted through a narrow warehouse space, past wrapped pallets of boxed goods, and towards the back of an industrial hallway where our guide offered us the chance to grab something from the vending machine. I should have known better than to believe her, however. The vending machine was indeed the secret entrance into Break Room 86.
The nostalgic vibe inside the space isn't nearly as obvious or as clear-cut as the other Houston brothers locations. Only true devotees of the 80s nightlife (and those like me who watched Weekend at Bernies on repeat) will understand many of the design elements and inspirations, but there are plenty of fun little flashbacks hidden around each corner.
More than anything, Break 86 is a lounge. It's like something straight out of Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards (that's me busting out my 80s chops), but with added accents from your favorite John Hughes film. How about a long hallway of lockers, just like you remember from Sixteen Candles?
Or a set of audio visual displays like Matthew Broderick commanded in War Games? I was half expecting to see Max Headroom make an appearance.
For all the right reasons, Break Room 86 skews the youngest of all the locations, so make sure you go looking for a party. The place doesn't get full until around10 PM, and the live performances start even later. If you wander towards the back of the bar, you'll find an old school phonebooth that is itself another secret entrance into a private karaoke lounge. Despite the lounge atmosphere and seemingly-Screwdriver-esque bar scene, the back bar is lined with top-notch booze—great tequilas, gins, single malts, and Bourbons. So even though you feel like you're in the 80s, you don't necessarily have to drink like you are. I don't think I saw my friend Harvey Wallbanger on the menu, at least.
Despite a thorough and detailed visit to six of the famed Houston brothers locales, I still didn't have time to visit them all. I'm going to have to schedule a second trip back down to Hollywood to take a look at Pour Vous—the French-themed brasserie, as well as the Piano Bar. I can't imagine I'll be anything less than amazed when I do find the time. There's an assumption in the spirits industry by the more savvy consumers that any liquid presented in an ornate and decorated bottle can't be good. The same goes for wine in a box, or the latest trend: wine in a can. There are pre-conceived notions about quality in the booze world that are based entirely on aesthetics, which is why many professionals feel they need to strip away these elements in order to prove their pure-intentioned devotion to flavor.
But what the Houston brothers prove over and over again with their thematic replicas of historic splendor is that quality and—more importantly—integrity are not necessarily linked to aesthetics. There are no rules and no mandates that require you to lose your sense of wonder in the face of regalement. Seeing that Hollywood was once the epicenter of fantasy and fable—a place that inspired the imagination to new heights of cinematic wonder—it only makes sense that the Houston brothers have created an entirely new version of the storytelling genre right in the heart of it. They've take the theatrics and the romanticism of the silver screen and transferred them directly into their own vision for hospitality. Most importantly, there's something for everyone within the portfolio; whether you want to dance, drink casually, have a comfortable dinner with friends, or party until dawn at various points in the past. Rather than narrowly focusing on taste, it's a curation of drinking that caters to all of the senses and never sacrifices ingenuity or quality throughout the experience.
I'm blown away. And I'm insanely jealous of my Hollywood co-workers who have a vast resource like this available to them on a nightly basis. I can't wait to come back down.