UPDATE AT 3:20 a.m., Monday, April 27, 2015: Last meal for Hal's was a hell of a party (see video, above). Read about the final hours, including swirling rumors that Hal's will reopen down the street, at bottom.
“It’s always a heavy pour.”
This is the feeling at Hal’s bar in Venice. It’s not bohemian, but simple, functional, warm. A bar for drinking and being together.
“This is where people know me," says Rusty from a corner barstool. She's a tan, middle-aged woman with a blonde pixie cut. Her son owns Abbot's Habit right down the street. "It's where I feel safe."
An Abbot Kinney neighborhood haunt since before the street was called Abbot Kinney, Hal’s is well-known as the Cheers-like locals' hangout, particularly for artists. Ed Ruscha, whose print shop is nearby, is a regular, as are Ed Moses and Judy Baca. Tim Robbins and Mel Brooks are seen frequently. Even Mike Tyson stops by for a drink.
On Sunday, Hal's is closing its doors after thirty years. All week regulars have stuffed the bar in commemoration of its final stretch, to savor its final moments.
"You can come here in jeans or a tux!” said no less than three of them, almost as if they’d been coached to say it. But it’s true. The tables are concrete and the waiters barely speak English. You can drink and eat for relatively cheap, and it’s open late. But there’s also a $25,000-a-panel Ed Moses tapestry on the wall and an original Joni Mitchell painting. Woods Davy’s (also a regular) floating rock sculptures, which sell for $20,000-$30,000 a pop, adorn the corners. The entire growth of Venice, from ghetto to gilded, is reflected in this space.
“Among artists in Venice there’s the older guard and the younger guard and sometimes I don’t feel like we have the same history,” says younger guard artist Kenny Harris, “But at a place like Hal’s, we feel connected to the present and past.”
The lion of the old guard is the Bukowski-esque artist Peter Lodato. He comes to the bar twice a day like clockwork — martinis in the afternoon, bourbon in the evening. If he doesn’t show up, his friends send someone to his house to make sure he’s still alive.
“There used to be so many artists here,” says Lodato, sipping a glass of chilled bourbon, surrounded by artist friends young and old. “And it’s changed.”
Everyone knows that gentrification is responsible for the changes. Some changes are good ("less crime") and some are bad ("more douchebags"). The loss of Hal’s, according to everyone I spoke to in Venice, falls firmly in the bad column.
Who to blame, however, is less clear than what to blame. It was rumored that a greedy landlord was booting Hal's out by tripling the rent. But this is not true. Hal’s is selling itself.
In the 1980s, owner Don Novack was a successful chairman of a savings and loan in Marina del Ray who had never thought of owning a restaurant. He represented two men in a deal to buy the restaurant, then called Merchant of Venice. He wasn’t overly familiar with the neighborhood, because back then it was 180 degrees different from what it is today. Desolate. Dominated by homelessness and gangs.
One of the men dropped out of the deal and, instead of letting it die, Novack rolled his commission into equity and became a 28 percent owner of Merchant of Venice. His new partner ran the business while he stayed behind the scenes.
The partner failed, and Merchant of Venice was bankrupt before Novack could intervene. Novack, not wanting to lose everything he’d put in, bought the partner out for $2,000, threatening to have him arrested if he didn’t accept the deal. Thus Novack says he became “100 percent owner of something I knew nothing about.”
He wasn’t a restaurateur, and, as a wealthy banker, was unfamiliar with the poor black community that lived in the area. He needed help. Enter Hal Frederick.
Frederick, a charismatic African American, was working as a maitre d' at another local restaurant, West Beach. He was popular and known around town, having been in London plays and Hollywood movies in the 1970s. Novack brought him in as a partner, and made him the face of the restaurant.
“Everybody is comfortable here. That’s part of the statement," says Novack. "Hal is just a comfortable guy. He never insults anybody.”
Assisting Hal in running the newly named Hal’s was Novack’s wife Linda. When she started, she was shocked at the condition of the place. They were robbed repeatedly. One time she had to step over a dead body to get in the door.
Yet the odd threesome, Don, Linda and Hal, had synergy. Hal's became a fantastic local bar, the kind that comes along once in a generation. It was the staple of the dangerous community, and survived the bad years until the early 2000s, when things began to change. The hip restaurant Gjelina opened down the street in 2008, and the pendulum began to swing the other way.
Today, it has swung all the way to the opposite pole.
“Abbot Kinney is a magazine now, a brochure, a high-end one." says Destin Clover, a long-haired Venice surfer dude straight out of central casting. He's hanging out with Lodato, and sort of worships him.
Novack speculated that Abbot Kinney would grow, and was smart enough to sign a lengthy ten year lease back in 2009. Had he not done so, Hal’s would have been forced out by high rent prices years ago. Even still, it was only a matter of time.
“The lease was up in four years, and we’d be out of business, and 90 people would be out of the job," says Novack. "We’d have nothing sell, and everyone unemployed.”
Instead of accepting this his fate, Novack did the smart thing. He asked his landlord to buy him out of the last four years of his lease. The landlord agreed. They would both make more money that way — Novack some cash up front, and the landlord significantly higher rent prices from a new tenant (or tenants, as some speculate the space will be divided into two narrower retail stores) over four years.
Novack dispels the "greedy landlord" narrative. “No way. Not true at all," says Novack. "We have a great relationship with him. He was here today. We were kibitzing around.”
Hal's is a bar, not a charity, and as much as the regulars love it, they don’t expect Novack to operate at a loss. Novack has been good to them.
“If there’s anyone who's been a hero to this community, it’s Don," says Clover. "We have artists who can’t afford to be here, but he’ll be the first to buy everyone a drink.”
Lodato nods his head. “Don is the best.”
Novack wants to re-open Hal’s on Abbot Kinney, and says a deal is in the works. (How it’s possible that Hal’s could survive elsewhere on Abbot Kinney if it can’t survive in its current location, is unclear). Novack has spoken to other businesses in the area and persuaded them to hire his employees in the interim.
But where will the people go instead? Lodato says he’ll try Chaya on Main, for its equally relaxed-but-upscale vibe, and several others echoed this idea. Others say they’ll have to try out the Mexican restaurants on Venice Boulevard, or Indian restaurants in Culver City. Nowhere else on Abbot Kinney feels right.
Some are more despondent. Linda Novack has been answering the telephones since the news broke about the closure last week. She said two of three callers broke out sobbing on the other end when they heard the news.
“Don’t cry," she tells them.
UPDATED at 3:20 a.m. Monday by Jill Stewart:
Executive Chef Manuel Mares looked like he'd been crying as he shoved the final hundred meals out of the chaotic kitchen late on Sunday, and owner Novack kept repeating "We're running out of everything."
The crowds outside Hal's didn't understand why so many other people had the same idea as them — "I have never seen a line at Hal's" one young local said. The friendly bouncer had to tell a long-timer with curly gray hair, who was persistently begging to get inside, "Sir, people are telling me their credit card is back inside, or their father is back inside. I'm sorry, you have to go to the end of the line."
Inside, the roar was crazy, and at least three professional videographers were making little documentaries while getting jostled by the crush of (fire department aside) people. At one table, Venice's best-known cross-dresser, a man said to control much of the land along and around Abbot Kinney Boulevard, was holding court festooned in a blonde page boy wig, jewels and cocktail attire.
Novack kept on the move, pointing out the notables, holding hands with strangers and hugging people, and remembering the greats who ate or drank at Hal's:
"When Taps was being filmed with Gregory Hines, we had Sammy Davis Jr. and Aretha Franklin in here, the Nicholas Brothers were here, Chaka Khan, all of them were here at Hal's, and we were empty, and so we just moved things out of the way and they were dancing in the aisles. It was insane." Tim Robbins and Sean Penn were regulars. Somebody remembered the thrill of eating at a table near Brando.
All long ago. But the new crowds came, and the new stars. In the last several hours of Hal's existence, at least at its current locale, Beyonce and Jay-Z cozied up at a table, and later, "Beyonce's mom came by — her mom," Novack said with a smile.
He pointed out Woods Davy, the natural elements sculptor whose rock artworks have long been shown at Hal's, and he was tickled that big-name artists Ed Moses and Laddie John Dill popped in.
At one point, Novack took a few guests on a trek upstairs to the secret private dining room where luminaries sometimes ate to be free of the gawkers. But the truth is the Hal's crowd was never much for gawking, as Novack is the first to brag. The clientele has always been the hippest of the hip in a chunk of Los Angeles that is itself in the realm of post-hip.
"I've been crying all day," said Matt Geller, "that's why I look bleary-eyed." Geller, who runs the National Food Truck Association and held his wedding reception at Hal's several years ago "by buying out the whole space" was among dozens of guests gossiping about steady rumors that Novack is busy on secret paperwork aimed at moving down the street. The new location is said to be a more flexible space in a building very near Joe's, yet another iconic Venice dining hangout.
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Most people partying into early Monday morning fully expected Novack to reappear in that new space not long from now. Their tears were for good times past. Novack reminded a small group clinging to his words that "our bread and butter was always the artists, the creative people. They created this community, and we honor them tonight."
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