Hal's Move Signals That the Westside's Creative Core Is No Longer Venice — It's Playa Vista

Longtime Venice eatery Hal’s Bar & Grill plans to reopen in December at Runway Playa Vista, above.
Longtime Venice eatery Hal’s Bar & Grill plans to reopen in December at Runway Playa Vista, above.
Photo by Timothy Norris

Once, Playa Vista was called Ballona Valley, open marshland flanking Lincoln Boulevard south of the raucous Venice commercial strip and north of Westchester's aspirational blufftop suburbia. Change began in the form of a years-long battle between developers and environmentalists before the Los Angeles City Council caved to business demands.

The Coalition United to Save All of Ballona saved 600-plus acres of rare habitat that's now among the last coastal wetlands in L.A. County. Much of the rest was dubbed "Playa Vista" and transformed into thousands of luxury apartments and condos, complete with a shopping center, a Starbucks and its own movie theater.

No longer content to be scenery on the shortcut to LAX, Playa Vista has experienced a metamorphosis from supporting player to destination as more and more tech companies open large-scale enterprises and satellite offices in L.A., including Google's arrival in the transformed, gigantic Howard Hughes Spruce Goose hangar.

As Playa Vista transitions into a place of its own, some say it might represent the younger and future face of the Westside.

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When architect Tima Bell was growing up in West L.A. a couple of decades ago, he says, the meadowlands on which Playa Vista now stands was "the place between the Westside and the South Bay. Now it's become a draw to the people who live on the Westside or the South Bay because of the way it was developed.

"Playa Vista development," he continues, "has been special in terms of bridging the Westside and the South Bay. It was about bringing in amenities such as restaurants like Hal's or a Whole Foods or outdoor basketball courts."

After 28 years, Hal's Bar & Grill, the legendary eatery, neighborhood watering hole and artists' hangout, shut down its beloved Abbot Kinney location in Venice. Now the owners are headed south to Playa Vista.

It's a move that many believe signals the Westside's cultural and geographic shift.

"Things don't stay the same. Things move," says Hal Frederick, the man behind the restaurant. "We were on Abbot Kinney for a long time, and we were the first cosmopolitan restaurant on the street. We had sophisticated food that was attractive to actors and artists. It's incredible how people make a home out of a restaurant."

Frederick and his partners, Don and Linda Novack, are betting that old and new fans will find their way to the new Hal's.

"People are walking down Abbot Kinney pulling on my shirt and asking when and where we're opening," Novack says. "In Playa Vista, we'll be appealing to a younger crowd."

The new 4,700-square-foot Hal's is due to open in December in the shopping strip called Runway Playa Vista, where a Whole Foods and a multiplex theater are open and busy. But don't let the developers hear you call Runway a strip mall.

No, it's a "mixed-use lifestyle center" surrounded by 13,000 luxury apartments and condos that are three, four and five stories tall, some the color scheme of a Mondrian painting, and filled with millennials who work for nearby DirecTV, Yahoo!, YouTube and Facebook, or a short commute away at the sprawling tech companies and startups in El Segundo and Manhattan Beach.

Playa Vista is decidedly not Venice. It is far more racially diverse — far more Asian and more Latino. It's open about its preferences for hot cars, and it's into neatness. It's shiny and tidy. Some homeless people are around, all but invisible. If it has any gangs, they're still in preschool.

The influx of Asians, particularly techies, makes Playa Vista one of the most Asian communities in the city — comprising more than 21 percent, according to the U.S. Census. John, a resident of the Dawn Creek section, says, "If anything is different in the way of food" at the new Hal's, "Asians will flock to it."

At 89, Venice artist Ed Moses is no millennial. But he embraces change. He understands it. He lived it, along with his contemporaries Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Woods Davy. So he isn't mourning Hal's move, even though he frequented it all the years it was open.

"Time moves on," says Moses, who currently has a retrospective of his drawings from the 1960s and '70s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Hal's was a great place. Do I think the artists will follow them to Playa Vista? That depends on how cordial they are to the artists. Artists are always looking for a place to hang out."

Architect Bell, along with Scott Sullivan and Dan Einzig, is creating the new Hal's interior, a 215-seat bistro that blends the old with the new. Some of the new includes a square central bar that is expected to be the focal point. They're including a 40-seat private dining room tentatively named the Gallery because it will feature rotating art shows, Einzig says.

But there's also a nod to the old, with many of Hal's paintings and sculptures making the transition, along with Hal's chef, Manuel Mares, the only one Frederick has ever trusted to feed his friends.

"The key to re-creating Hal's will be the focus on community, art and how people are hosted," Einzig says. "Another key challenge is that we're dealing with a newer, younger demographic and what sort of food and drink millennials aspire to. What we're creating is a sense of the Venice art community. Millennials might be young, but they're creative and un-corporate."

Frederick insists his new place will retain its legendary easy attitude along with art by Moses, Davy and even a piece by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, who, according to Hal, was offered $22,000 for the painting but turned it down because she liked having it displayed on Hal's wall. Laddie John Dill was told his piece at the old Hal's might be too big for the new place, so Dill offered to create a smaller replacement.

Sculptor Woods Davy and his wife, Kathleen Dantini, built their home/studio in 1985 two blocks from Abbot Kinney when it was named West Washington. They found this fern-and-pancake place called the Merchant of Venice, which later transformed into Hal's. One of Davy's free-floating, gravity-defying rock sculptures seemed to solidify the wall supporting it.

"It was always fun to hang out there, see friends, relaxed vibe, have a few drinks, then dinner.  It just felt like home. We went there a lot," Davy wrote in an email. "And I was happy to lend them a few sculptures when Hal asked. We took out-of-town friends there, our daughters and their boyfriends. It was always easy and relaxed. And the staff was always great."

Davy is hopeful the new Hal's will retain the flavor and color of the old. He thinks a new crowd of artists will find their way south. "I don't know if a Playa Vista Hal's will work for the old crowd," he wrote. "But perhaps a younger group from that neighborhood will make it home for themselves and their generation."

Matthew and Rachelle DeLoach are already looking forward to that.

The young couple has lived in Playa Vista for two years. Matthew knows Hal's well because he frequented the establishment's Jazz Mondays. He predicts success, "because Playa Vista is the next biggest thing in L.A. and the dot-commers are here. A restaurant that succeeds on Abbot Kinney is going to succeed in Playa Vista.

"I hope Hal's can keep some of the mystique and energy and keep innovating, because that's what Playa Vista is all about. It's an experiment in a petri dish."


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