Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, long before it was a hipster haven replete with cheese stores and upscale coffee shops, Silver Lake was a center for L.A.’s gay leather community. That all began changing in the ‘90s, and the chipping away at that subculture has continued ever since.
Over the past several years, many gay bars elsewhere in L.A. have slowly started shuttering. In 2013, the West Hollywood lesbian bar The Palms bid farewell after 48 years. More recently, the New Jalisco Bar, a safe haven for queer Latinos, has been threatened with demolition permits in fast-gentrifying downtown L.A.; although it’s safe for now, ownership has voiced uncertainty about the bar’s future. A few new gay bars have sprung up in gentrifying DTLA, including Redline and Precinct, but many have seen the rise of Grindr, Scruff and other gay hook-up apps — which allow queers to meet without ever entering a queer-only space — as the gay bar’s death knell, particularly the gay dive bar.
Meanwhile, Akbar is thriving after 20 years, thanks in no small part to a diverse scene that spans generations, welcomes young creatives and still offers a safe space for older gay folks. It’s an inclusive atmosphere by design. When owners Scott Craig and Peter Alexander (along with a third partner and his wife) opened the bar in the mid-’90s, the idea was to have a hangout that was obviously gay-leaning — rainbow flag out front and all — but was a bit more mixed than the strictly gay male-only bars they were familiar with.
It first occurred to Craig to open a bar in the early ‘90s, when the AIDS epidemic was still ravaging the gay community. As early as the mid-’80s, he’d begun organizing gay gatherings at dive bars and clubs, and around that same time, when Craig and Alexander were romantic partners, they used to hit the clubs nearby and in the downtown area. Craig had moved to L.A. in November 1981 from San Francisco, where he grew up; Alexander migrated in from the Valley.
In 1996, after consulting with quite a few friends who told him what it was like to own a bar, Craig walked into Joly’s #2, an old gay piano bar at the corner of Sunset and Fountain. Both the bar and the piano inside it were on their last legs.
“I went in and went up to the owner of Joly’s #2, and he offered me a figure and I accepted,” says Craig.
When he called Alexander to let him know that he was buying a bar, Alexander responded by saying, “No, we are buying a bar.” Craig, who worked in commercials, was frequently away on business, so doing that and running a bar at the same time didn’t seem plausible. But with the two of them on board, Alexander rationalized, the day-to-day logistics would make more sense.
On Dec. 12, 1996, Craig got the keys to the place. One of the things he remembers about first entering the bar was the distinct smell he noticed emanating from the piano in the back, where the jukebox and couches were (and still are) located.
“It was a little baby grand piano that smelled of booze and cigarettes, and the keys were slightly out of place,” he recalls.
That stinky piano got moved into Scott’s garage, making way for a complete redesign of the space. Akbar opened its doors on New Year’s Eve 1996, which means its official 20-year anniversary is just months away. From the start, Craig and Alexander decided Akbar would be more of a clubhouse than a club — a place where friends could gather.
“We didn’t want it to turn into some place with velvet ropes and some drinks,” Craig says.
A lot has changed since Akbar opened its doors, including the neighborhood that surrounds it. When Akbar opened, you “really couldn’t find a good restaurant in the whole neighborhood,” Craig says. “There were maybe two.” There was also a motel across the street that was notorious for drugs and prostitution.
As gentrification has transformed Silver Lake, some people have applauded surface-level improvements: boutique stores that somehow specialize in paper, various cute cafes and people on iPhones walking their small dogs. But for those who recognize the lack of diversity and the displacement of people who have been there for much longer, the reactions are more mixed.
“I think that’s gentrification, people moving here and taking the bits they want and not accepting the diversity that happens here or wanting their little gentrifying neighborhood to be what it was before,” says Romy Hoffman, who runs the third Thursday dance party Homoccult at Akbar.
Bruce Daniels, the comedian who produces Drunk on Stage at Akbar, has been an eyewitness to change over the 10 years since he started his show, which has featured big names like Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Maria Bamford.
“It’s not a gay neighborhood anymore, which is weird,” says Daniels. “I left for a year-and-a-half and went to a bar called Revolver in West Hollywood because they really wanted me to do stand-up there.” Daniels says he’d been at Akbar for seven years and wanted a change but quickly realized that WeHo was not the right place to do comedy for an audience that cared.
“We had a lot more foot traffic because it’s WeHo, but even if those guys were there for comedy, they were really there for dick,” says Daniels. “Dick surpasses comedy most of the time.”
Daniels triumphantly returned to Akbar at the beginning of 2016. It was home, and it was the place where he’d gotten his start after manager Jeffrey Wylie first saw him perform in San Francisco.
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“Tuesday is a great night to work out new material because comics are usually on the road over the weekend,” says Daniels. “In comedy, we’re also so used to straight guys — they can perform anywhere — but women and people of color and alt people of color don’t get that chance. So I wanted that too — I want to have this space for them to perform.”
Jeff Rasul, bartender and promoter of Akbar’s Club BUMP, has been with Akbar since 2005, after he closed down the clothing store Retail Slut — located at Melrose and Poinsettia Avenues — that specialized in punk, goth and underground styles. Rasul hasn’t noticed particular changes at the bar business-wise since the neighborhood’s gentrification, but he has noticed that the crowd seems younger.
“The young kids come in with their creative energy,” he says. “I am gonna be 43. It’s about getting older, and it’s a little bit of a shock. Bar-tending there, you get used to it.”
No gay bar, or any bar for that matter, would be complete without its regulars. Ray Alvarez is 62 years old, and for him Akbar has felt like a safe haven from the beginning, back when he was in his 40s. Twenty years on, he still comes in all the time. “I enjoy happy hour because it’s age-appropriate,” he says. “Akbar has an intimate feel to it — safe and welcoming.”