The first time I visited Mr. T’s Bowl was probably sometime back in the earliest ’90s, on a warm Saturday morning in late spring. Mr. T’s, you understand, was less a bowling alley than an enormous Highland Park cocktail lounge that happened to encompass a couple of lanes, and even back then, when a passerby was drawn in by the faded AMF sign or the rocketing pins painted on a nearby wall, Mr. T (not the actor) would usually claim to have forgotten where he kept the balls. On this morning, I was at the bar with the late DJ Jac Zinder, whose club Fuzzyland had been bouncing from Filipino adobo huts to Little Tokyo driving ranges to East Hollywood bar mitzvah halls, because he had a hunch that T’s might be a good fit for his club.
The stools were already filled. One man was muddy from early-morning duties that apparently involved burying a whole, 90-pound hog in his sister-in-law’s back yard; a friend of his claimed to have been ejected from a Shriners’ picnic for excessive drunkenness that morning, and it was just past 10 a.m. One customer was simultaneously drinking a Bud and a Bud Lite, taking alternating pulls off each bottle that were vaguely timed to the Patsy Cline song on the jukebox. In the course of 15 minutes, five or six people offered to stand us a round of drinks, and Zinder seemed to know everybody in the room.
Mr. T’s, in other words, was exactly what Jac was looking for — a bar with lots of floor space and an eccentric assortment of regulars — and in the two or three years he ran his club there until he was killed in a car crash on Thanksgiving 1994, the lounge and its patrons were probably as big a draw for the punk rock has-beens who loved Jac and his clubs as were the dancing flowerpots, Jac’s eccentric playlist, the sets from the likes of Beck and L7, and the Casiotone player who usually played “Moon River” for spare change outside the Hollywood Pic ’N Save.
Now there is The Gutter, a sort of Fuzzyland-ish coffee shop that opened last year at Mr. T’s, colonizing an old lunch counter and a disused kitchen that probably served as the snack bar when the bowling alley was last operational, around 1973. After Fuzzyland, I more or less lost track of Mr. T’s Bowl, although I knew there were still regular nights of hardcore, artcore and screechy jazz. And it was peculiar to trip down those back steps again, to hear a band run through a sound check of music that might have been ripped from a monitor tape of an early Savage Republic show, and not least to be served a glass of fresh limeade, a roasted-eggplant sandwich with radicchio, and a cup of curried lentil soup that could almost be described as delicate. There were freshly fried potato chips with a powerful smack of garlic and a little cup of spicy homemade ketchup, creamy potato salad with artichokes, and warm bread pudding topped with a syrupy fried banana, like a starchy variation on a classic Bananas Foster.
I don’t know if you ever had the opportunity to sample the duck-fried rice at the Hong Kong or the dishwater-laced noodles at the old Atomic Café, but I can testify: Punk rockers eat a lot better than they used to.
This is pretty much home cooking at the Gutter, you understand, mostly sandwiches, more like what you find at the groovy, cheap artists’ restaurants in the transitional artist neighborhoods of Chicago and Portland than like the food at the old Flaming Colossus or at the nascent City Café. Katie and Leecy, the identical twins who run the place, come from Wisconsin by way of UC Berkeley, and their experiments run along the lines of a gravy-laden take on the Hot Brown sandwich, a tofu scramble they call the Hippie Bowl, and several variations on a fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich that seem to all be called The Elvis. They toss oregano in their chili and a fried egg into their version of a French bistro’s frisée au lardons. Their specialty is hot meat loaf served with fig gravy.
I think Jac might have loved the place. And the Mr. T’s regulars love the twins too, beyond reason, beyond reflection, as the Little Prince loved his rose.
“We are all of us lying in the gutter,” as Oscar Wilde said, “but some of us are looking at the stars.”
At Mr. T’s Bowl, 5621½ N. Figueroa Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 256-4850. Open for lunch Tues.–Fri., for dinner Tues.–Sat., for brunch Sat.-Sun. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $13–$18. Cash only. Full bar is adjacent. City parking lot in rear. Recommended dishes: fried-egg salad; hot meat-loaf sandwich; garlic fries.