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Tequila At Sunrise

Photos by Caroline Ryder

I don’t normally start drinking when the sun rises. After all, only alcoholics and insomniacs need a tall one — and not the caffeinated kind — first thing in the morning. I’m neither alcoholic nor insomniac, but I do have the holiday blues, that awful seasonal gloom that somehow makes vodka martinis for breakfast seem like a very sensible idea.

In California, you can legally start purchasing booze at 6 a.m., so for some tips on what joints are jumping at dawn, I call Hollywood Community Police Station, assuming cops would know where to get a relaxing beer after the night shift. “We don’t drink and we don’t smoke, especially not at 6 a.m.,” says the stern voice on the other end of the line. “But if we did, there is this place called the Spotlight on Cahuenga...”

* * *


The Spotlight is a notorious gay dive, supposedly frequented by the sketchiest of Hollywood’s tweakers and trannies. When I arrive there just after 6, the sky is pink and swirly, the streets are empty, and parking is a breeze. No crowds, no lines, no cover charge. Inside it feels cozy and welcoming, a thick black tarp pulled across the doorway as a defense against intruding rays of light.

The barman’s name is Boo. He’s been working here only a year but has been a customer for around 12. “Sometimes the cops come in looking for somebody they were chasing,” he says. “Or if people are standing outside looking scandalous, they might roll up and see if they are tweaking. But otherwise it’s pretty quiet and friendly in the mornings.” A sign informs us that Mount Gay rum has been marked down to $2 from $4.50. A guy at the bar, Neptune, or “Tuna,” claims he’s been coming here for more than 20 years. He is wearing a T-shirt that says “Spotlight Club” on the back. He reads Boo his horoscope and sips on a raspberry soda. Then he hits the vodka. “I come here because it’s a neighborhood bar,” he tells me. “We watch the news together, we talk and read the paper. You get to know the people, and it becomes like a family.” Apparently the Moody Blues dropped by for breakfast refreshments not so long ago when they were staying at the West Hollywood Hyatt. “They sure can drink,” laughs Tuna.

A man walks in who is handsome in a young–Don Johnson sort of way — aside from a missing front tooth. “Got knocked out by some girl’s boyfriend at the House of Blues the other night,” he laughs. He has been doing blow for two days straight. He buys me and my friend beers and orders a peppermint schnapps and vodka for himself. Then he runs across the street to get onion bagels for everyone and, handing one to my friend, whispers, “I’ve killed people, you know.” This kind of revelation would normally have sent me heading for the door at light speed. But I’m perfectly relaxed. Even if my new drinking buddy is wanted for murder, there’s something about the intimate camaraderie of early-morning boozing that overrides all that. I feel I could trust this guy with my secrets too. Hell, with my life . I finish my beer and bagel and wish I could hang around but I can’t — the sun can’t rise too high before I reach my next stop in Los Feliz.

* * *


It’s about 7:30 a.m. when we arrive at The Drawing Room. It is darker and less welcoming than the Spotlight. At one end of the bar sits a group of middle-aged gentlemen, starting off the day with a beer before work. At the other end is another group, carrying on its night, from the looks of things. Among them is a glamorous, busty blond I recognize as the bartender Jennifer. She’s off duty, and chatting animatedly with a heavy Latino gentleman. She looks over, smiles and shouts to the barman, “Pour these guys a drink, on me!” Again, I feel that warm kinship, the secret understanding that exists among people drinking at a bar while the rest of the world is getting ready for work. Jennifer is tragic and resplendent in glittery red lipstick. We talk to her for hours and learn she’s originally from Kansas City and came out here to be an actress. “I’m still trying,” she sighs, as the barman pours her another. I think I love her. I tell her she is famous, among drinkers in L.A. anyway — even the Zagat guide mentions her. I promise to take her out in Beverly Hills and then stumble out into the now blazing sunshine. Time for bed.

* * *


A few nights later, I am having trouble sleeping. The alarm clock says 5 a.m. “What the hell,” I think, throwing off the covers. First stop, Del’s Saloon on Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A., one of Lee Marvin’s old haunts. There are pool tables and darts and it is quiet and a little too bright. I order a bottle of Bud ($2.50) and start peeling off the label, as per the Sheryl Crow song. I am alone and wearing a miniskirt and I can only imagine what the two mature gentlemen at the bar think — probably they’re just relieved I’m not their daughter. One of them is called Darryl, and he has dyed black hair and is wearing a tweed jacket and prescription glasses. A key hangs from a string around his neck and he seems happy to see me. He offers to buy me a gin martini, same as his. He used to play rhythm guitar in prog-rock bands but now likes to sing karaoke. “You have a good aura,” he tells me, before inviting me to sing with him that evening in Santa Monica. He promises to take me to Sizzler afterward.

* * *

Next, I head down the road to The Gas Lite in Santa Monica. I am first to arrive, and I strike up a conversation with the young barman Ronnie, an actor. “You get two different crowds in here at 6 a.m.,” he says. “There’s the kids who have been up all night, and then the older regulars who come here for breakfast. It can get interesting on Saturday mornings.” He tells me sometimes they’ll even fire up the karaoke machine if the early-morning party really gets going. Happy hour lasts from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. so I hang out there for a while, making friends with a Santa Monica fire chief who buys me a drink, gives me money for the jukebox and invites me and all my friends down to the station anytime. I also meet manager Clare Ragge, who has been running the place since 1998. She says 6 a.m. bars are a dying institution in L.A.

“A lot of the old-timers are passing away, so for most bars, there just isn’t enough of a regular clientele to open up that early,” she says, handing me some popcorn. “But we’ll always be here.”

I drink to that and head out, squinting, into the midday sun.

The Spotlight, 1601 N. Cahuenga Blvd., L.A., (323) 467-2425 . The Drawing Room, 1800 Hillhurst Ave., L.A., (323) 665-0135 . Del’s Saloon, 12238 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 207-1978 . The Gas Lite, 2030 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-2382


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