Soup Lines and 35-Cent Martinis: At the Edison Downtown, Where the Depression Is Still a Happy Hour

Hot tomato soup and grilled cheese station
Erin Broadley

View more photos in the Edison happy hour slideshow.

 

The signs of depression are upon us: swelling unemployment rates, bombing businesses, the anorexic waistlines of newspapers and distended wombs of single women pumped full of fertility drugs. Deep in the bowels of the oldest private power plant in downtown Los Angeles on a rainy Friday afternoon, men and women line up for rations at a weekly soup kitchen. In their hands they grasp a single blue ticket, good for a teacup full of tomato soup and half a grilled cheese sandwich.

But look closer and you will not see distant faces or tattered clothes. Keep your eye on the line of hungry people and you will notice that some return for second and third helpings, and a wooden box on the table is stuffed generously with dollar bills for the woman ladling out the steaming red liquid, her eyes darkened by thick layers of black mascara. The soup is creamy and hot, the grilled cheese sandwiches pressed on wheat bread and cut into neat triangles. Listen closely and you will hear the clink of cocktail glasses kissing, the sultry, muted sound of a trumpet floating through the vast room. Glance downward and you will find tall leather boots, neatly polished lawyers’ pumps and wingtipped loafers that reflect the shimmering constellations of light bulbs strung elegantly from the high ceilings. No, these are not Dorothea Lange subjects. And this is no longer an active power plant in the historic Higgins Building, but one of downtown’s most desirable drink destinations. While the recently unemployed scamper out to find ways to afford car payments and college tuitions, those still hanging on to their jobs in downtown Los Angeles head down to the Edison Bar after work to decompress with “a vintage martini at a vintage price.”

“It’s like being in a time machine, and the price point doesn’t hurt,” says one woman who walked over from the Music Center, where she works. She had never been to the Edison, but recently heard about the happy hour, which benefits the Midnight Mission on Skid Row (25 percent of proceeds are donated to nonprofits). The soup kitchen is limited to Friday evenings, from 5 to 7 p.m., but on Thursdays and Fridays, the pricey bar knocks down its $13 cocktail prices before the regular nighttime crowds show up and offers 35-cent martinis and drinks that make the recession a bit easier to imbibe. Bartenders busily shake up the Bailout, the Edison’s rendition of an old drink called the Ward Eight, a delicate combination of bourbon, lemon juice and pomegranate syrup. For optimists and pessimists alike, there is the 401K, a gin margarita in a tall glass filled only halfway. An Australian man sidles up to the bar to watch a bartender muddle fresh blueberries and gingerroot with elderflower liqueur for a purple-tinted cocktail called the English Afterthought. He works for Qantas Airways and is in L.A. for a few days before flying back home. “This is one of the most beautiful bars I’ve ever seen in my life,” he remarks, and orders a $6 beer.

While a small but constant line of people waits for soup and the bartenders make plenty of cheap martinis, many here tonight have not come for the bargains and aren’t sure what the Midnight Mission means. All of the tables have already been reserved and co-workers and couples sit around as waiters bring baskets of lobster sausage, calamari and caviar. If the effects of the recession have hit Los Angeles, you will not find them here. Underground, below the crumbling businesses and disappearing jobs beyond Second and Main, those still afloat find fashion in the downfall and glamorously flirt with images of hardship and decay. Here it is hip to line up for four ounces of mass-produced tomato soup, washed down with drinks named after economic disasters. Two men in suits sit at a table in the center of the room. They work at City Hall and often head down to the Edison for a few drinks after work. They know the waitress by name and she brings them their usual order.

“A lot of people don’t even buy the 35-cent martinis, they take the drink ticket and put it in their back pocket as a souvenir,” one of them says. On the back wall, old movies are projected, the black-and-white images flashing without sound. No one is watching.


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