Everybody knows your name at L.A.’s oldest restaurant and bar.
By Margaret Wappler
Times Staff Writer
April 13, 2006
In the swampy back room of Cole’s P.E. Buffet, L.A.’s oldest restaurant and bar, the downtown dive feels like a small-town church. Lights beam through stained glass while the audience sings “amen” with the ragtag country band I See Hawks in L.A., some with their eyes closed, some holding hands.
It’s the kind of moment that defines Cole’s, a welcoming beacon occupying a stretch of 6th Street, an area jaunty with downtown hucksters by day and spookily desolate by night.
On this particular cold and drizzly Friday night, everyone’s wearing peacoats and sweaters. But despite the New England wear and weather, this is definitely L.A. When the Hawks’ Rob Waller and Paul Lacques harmonize about an SUV flipped over on the 405, the crowd whoops in knowing, ironic tones.
The dimly lighted Cole’s, ratty and elegant with its old-fashioned signs advertising buttermilk for 15 cents and tiled floor covered in wood shavings, has many identities. But most of all it’s a downtown institution embraced for its cheap beer, easy conversation and family-like ambience. Forget the Standard and its ilk, with prickly doormen, VIP rooms and overpriced martinis du jour, or hipster hangouts such as Pete’s or the Golden Gopher, which feel more like annexes of Silver Lake. Cole’s, open since 1908 and famous for its French Dip sandwiches, is where a discerning drinker can find authenticity in all its junky splendor.
Scrappy, young and fiercely tightknit, the Cole’s Friday night crowd is drawn to roots, blues, country and folk-rock with retro style but modern bite. Amy Farris, Kenny Edwards and Mike Stinson have played here, plus Carlos Guitarlos, tonight content to observe in a sozzled haze from the sidelines.
I See Hawks in L.A. have played nearly every Friday without amps and only one microphone since 2003, letting the starch acoustics and attentive room carry their golden-hued music.
“Cole’s is full of ghosts and history,” singer and guitarist Waller says, pointing to a booth where, according to legend, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel bet on cards.
“We’ve played in a lot of clubs and here it’s so real. We get to choose who we play with, there’s no sound man messing things up, no cover. We just pass a bucket around and we do all right. It’s just turned into something magical.”
Many of the Hawks’ fans feel the same. Rye Baerg, a UCLA student who lives in West L.A., has been coming to see the band play at Cole’s for a few years. “To me there’s something very honest about their music. And something very L.A.,” he says. “Whenever I listen to them outside the city, it makes me think of here.”
Outside of the back room, the rest of Cole’s is content to listen to night manager Ali Mazarei’s iTunes with its head-scratching mix of Turkish dance music, Guns N’ Roses and Coldplay. For the first time, someone has hooked up the TV to a live feed of the Hawks’ performance in the back, but no one pays it any mind. Patrons buzzed on Chimay, the de facto house beer, crowd into red leather booths and chatter aimlessly about work, friends and lovers, while barflies ages 20 to 50 cling to the mahogany bar or each other.
Chuck Dedeu, the bartender from Spain who calls Cole’s his home away from home, has a bandage wrapped around his elbow from the blood drive Cole’s hosted earlier in the day in memory of Laura Esguerra Adams, a bartender who died last year.
Mazarei has reluctantly managed Cole’s for nine years as a favor to his aunt and uncle, Gitti and Marty Benishti, who bought the bar 27 years ago. But he’s also had the biggest hand in rebuilding Cole’s. In the mid-’90s, Cole’s didn’t have the customer base to stay open past 8 p.m. Though Mazarei was smart enough not to change its comfort food-heavy menu with most items priced around $5, he brought in some bands, a first for the bar.
Steadily, as downtown gentrified and the Pacific Electric building that houses Cole’s rented out lofts, the establishment’s fan base grew. Now it stays open every night until 10 p.m. and often later, if there’s a party or a show.
Though Mazarei regularly greets orders with a grunt, there’s no denying his affection for many of the regulars. He knows all about them: Allan eats the same meal everyday, a turkey plate with a side of broccoli. Celia writes about downtown on her blog. The USC guys play poker with Mazarei. Cole’s has become his social life.
“It’s a community help-out kind of bar,” he says. “It goes past employees and customers. If I’m busy, people help me out and step behind the bar.”
He also admits it has its drawbacks. “This place is worse than Cheers,” he groans. “Everyone knows everyone’s business. I went on a date on Sunday and some of the regulars tried to meet me at the place. I had to change my plans at the last minute to throw them off my path.”
But while he’s in Cole’s, Mazarei belongs to the customers and they belong to him. Mona Shah, a 30-year-old regular who lives in one of the Pacific Electric lofts, finds comfort in the bar’s cast of characters.
“We’re all living here, this weird place,” Shah says about downtown L.A. “Cole’s has been here for ages and ages but none of us has. These cast members are like my family. I feel safe here.”
Margaret Wappler may be reached at weekend @latimes.com.