Tourist trap rep aside, we should not forget that L.A.’s most legendary liquoring holes happen to be all in one beloved yet often bad-mouthed part of town: Hollywood. Downtown nightlife still has an air of new. Silver Lake and Echo Park’s hipsterville reign endures. The Valley continues to thrive for its dives. But when we want to get idyllic about our buzz, imbibing Bukowski-style, we always come back to good ol’ Hollywood, and the older gritty-glam grottos along the Walk of Fame and surrounding streets like Cahuenga, Cherokee and Vine.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary last month, the Three Clubs at Santa Monica and Vine might not be as old as the Frolic Room or the Burgundy Room. But it is still one of Hollywood’s most beloved stalwarts, maintaining a loyal clientele with its dark ambience while gaining new fans with an expanding menu and evolving entertainment over the years. Showcasing bands, DJs, burlesque and, recently, some very popular theater and alternative musical experiences in its adjacent performance room, it’s long been more than just a bar. Owner Marc Smith has dabbled in other establishments and partnerships over the years, but Three Clubs is and will always be his baby.
The L.A. bar world can be pretty incestuous; all the big owners know each other or often partner up at some point. For Smith, his friendship with Cedd Moses of 213 Hospitality since the early ‘90s has been particularly impactful.
“He was working in hedge funds,” remembers Smith. “We were both inspired by L.A. nightlife and just a love for the city, so we decided to get into the business together. We started 213 Ventures [later renamed 213 Nightlife Group, now 213 Hospitality] together and first opened the Golden Gopher downtown. We went our separate ways after that, but we've remained close friends for over 20 years.”
Moses, whose first bar was Liquid Kitty and also had involvement in 4100 Bar, went on to such venues as Broadway Bar, Seven Grand and Casey's Irish Pub. Smith meanwhile focused on Three Clubs and his West Hollywood bar North, until he decided to join forces with another impresario after the latter closed.
“Andrew Meieran and I became friends shortly after I opened North,” Smith recalls of his second partner, now best known for revamping Clifton’s Cafeteria. “He was a property owner downtown and since we both loved the architectural history of L.A., the Edison was our dream project. We learned a lot from each other.”
Opened in 2007, the Edison was one of downtown’s most ambitious destinations, and its steam-punky splendor (housed in an old power plant) makes it one of the city’s most visually stunning bars to this day.
Three Clubs by contrast is decidedly simple in décor, and always has been. “When we opened back in ’91 we tried to reinvent the concept of a cocktail lounge,” says Smith. “I was inspired by Frank Sinatra/Rat Pack, Las Vegas cocktail lounges and my love for space-age bachelor pad music. We were like young kids wanting to act like adults – wearing suits, drinking martinis like our parents did.“
Though the mid-century vibe remained (the bar was featured in Mad Men), it also went through through a rock & roll phase featuring live music in the adjacent performance room weekly. Everyone from Billy Idol to John Mayer to Elliot Smith played there along with every local rocker of the moment over the years. DJs have always been a big part of the draw there as well, with DJ Big Daddy Carlos’ weekend shifts packing the place with bumping bodies seeking dance club vibes. (BDC’s run at Three Club was so successful that he went on to open his own place, Velvet Margarita on Cahuenga.)
Right now Smith says he’s more excited about Three Clubs than he’s ever been, thanks to the adjacent Hollywood Theatre Row. If you’re not a struggling actor or good friends with one, you may not be aware of it, but the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard near the bar is home to several playhouses and experimental theater spaces. Though it's not as prominent as that of New York, Smith sees the Hollywood theater scene growing, and sees Three Clubs as its epicenter.
The Hollywood Fringe Festival is a big part of the renaissance. "We got involved about three years ago. We host about 15 shows every year and over 115 performances in a three-week period, but the theatre crowd keeps coming year-round, too,” he says. “People are now writing shows, usually music-driven, just to perform in the bar because it's a more fun and raucous atmosphere than the spaces around here."
The usually barflies, rockers, scenesters and online daters (Three Clubs' low-lit, relaxed feel makes it perfect for those awkward first meetings) still flock to Smith's bar every week, but the boozer thespian crowd does appear to take over many nights. I met up with an actor pal there a couple weeks ago before his late-night play and the place was filled animated actors types who all seemed to know each other.
Smith wants Three Clubs to be "a place to put on shows that break the fourth wall, to encourage and even incorporate drinking into the experience. It just makes everything more fun for everyone. Over the past few years we have cultivated relationships with a few different theater groups, and slowly we've added more weekly and monthly shows here. I love that everyone hangs out here before and after shows and rehearsals. They even rehearse here. We have become such a central focus for them socially and professionally."
Smith says he has some plans for new possible venues that capitalize on what he sees as Theatre Row’s growing influence and importance in Hollywood, but "it's too early to talk about."
"We do intend to expand and help create the social aspect of the theater district," he says. "There is so much development going on there right now. These people work so hard on their craft. There are no bars and restaurants or even coffee shops for people to socialize in around the theatres. We want to create the social environments for theatergoers and residents that are coming into the community."
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Three Clubs’ current schedule showcases the diversity and dramatic flair Smith wants to focus on. Mondays, the long-running "Monday Night Tease" showcases sexy burlesque, often music driven; Tuesdays, they have live bands; Wednesdays it's monthly stand-up, improv and sketch comedy residencies; Thursdays, they present plays and comedy shows, often followed by bands.
Weekends reflect the new direction Smith is currently most excited about. Fridays the bar hosts the “Cherry Poppins Cabaret & Burlesque Show," and Saturdays and Sundays it’s Funky Dinner Theatre with musicals, Shakespeare and comedies. Saturdays late, Smith’s running a ‘90s night, with decade-appropriate films, cocktails, food and music, all of it referencing the era when the bar first opened its doors.
"Hollywood has really been forgotten in the expansion of L.A. Downtown had blown up and the East Side is busy,” he says. "Hollywood is the center of L.A. It's not all about tourists. I want locals to have options and places to go, too. It's been my backyard for so many years. I want to see this through and see it thrive again."
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