He might have already owned a handful of popular bars around Los Angeles (Bigfoot Lodge, Little Cave, Thirsty Crow, Harlow), but Bobby Green of the 1933 Group discovered a new passion project when he set out to revive the iconic "barrel bar" in North Hollywood a few years ago.
The structure itself — which looks like a giant wooden barrel — is one of L.A.'s coolest examples of programmatic architecture (aka a building built to look like something that's not a building). It fits right in with Green's love of anything vintage and American-made. Now restored beyond its original glory and reopened as Idle Hour, the historic bar had drawn major crowds. People initially came to check out the novelty, but they appear to be sticking around for the old-timey atmosphere, clever yet classic cocktails and comforting pub food. On the patio is another throwback treat: the last remaining canine-shaped Bulldog Cafe (this one from the Petersen Auto Museum), placed amid outdoor seating.
We recently talked with Green about his new (old) spot and future projects (which likely will involve a lot of loving restoration).
You’ve had such an impact on L.A. bar culture. Did you grow up here?
I grew up in L.A. but I’m from Oklahoma originally. I’ve seen this [the barrel] since I was 10 years old. I went to junior high in Studio City. Then I went to high school in Woodland Hills. Did home schooling after that. Growing up right around here, I always admired this building. Even as a 10-year-old, I knew there was something different about it.
Tell me the history.
It originally closed in ‘83, but when I was 10 it was open. It was called La Caña, and it was painted white and had an awning. The older I got, when I got into old cars and collecting old stuff, [the more] the building meant to me. It was built in 1941 and I brought it back to its original look. This building was not cool in the '70s. All those prewar programmatic architecture-type buildings were considered corny by then.
So was this an architectural novelty trend for a certain period of time?
L.A. was covered with them. What happened was, starting in the 1920s and into the '30s, when people started buying cars, they were moving so fast. Business owners started worrying people were going by too fast and that they wouldn’t see their businesses, so they started building things that would really stand out. It was popular all the way up till about World War II. Post-World War II is when the economy got great, and then post-modernism began, so everyone wanted modern. Everyone wanted streamlined, modern-looking things, sort of the “let's go to the moon” kind of aesthetic. This kind of thing became dated. So almost all the buildings like this were torn down in the '50s, '60s and '70s. This one survived because of Doris Fernandez, the owner. She luckily didn’t tear it down, she just repainted it and repurposed it. Then in ‘83 she closed the business. That would have normally marked the end, but instead she decided to live in the building. She lived here for 35 years.
I hear you guys are also restoring Mr. T's Bowl. What are your plans for it?
It was an amazing bowling alley. People remember when it was a venue for punk shows more recently. I used to go to punk-rock shows there, too. I was there one night when someone got stabbed. It was a little sketchy. That’s what made it a good punk-rock bar. But we’re kind of going back to the the original look, when it was called the Highland Park Bowl in the late '30s. We’re still deciding and planning right now. But restoration will be a big part of it, like with this place. At this point that’s what I do. I restore L.A. history — what little there is of it.
So you’d like to do more of that?
I’ll do as many as I can get my hands on. That’s what I’ve been about my whole life, whether it be cars, music, clothes, lifestyle. L.A. has such a rich history. Things were built here that no other city in the world had, and then they were torn down.
How do you view gentrification? On the one hand you’re smart enough to look at a neighborhood and foresee the changes and cater to that. But on the other hand you’re into preserving the old buildings and styles. Isn’t that contradictory in some way?
I think they go hand in hand. Take a look at Old Town Pasadena. I don't know if you went there when you were a kid, but almost half the buildings over there were boarded up with squatters, and some even burned down. It was sketchy, but you tell people that now and they can’t believe it. And that’s exactly what’s happening on Figueroa.
Do you think Figueroa will end up like Old Town Pasadena?
I think the beautification part of it, yeah. There’s so many beautiful buildings there. Obviously I don’t think anyone in Highland Park wants to be Pasadena. We don’t want to just shop at Abercrombie or J. Crew. So what I’m hoping for Fig is that it will be this beautifully restored old L.A. street yet still have have some amazing local color and stores and restaurants.
We get a lot of credit [with our bars] for being the first ones in Highland Park, Atwater Village, North Hollywood and Culver City, and that’s great. But to be honest, I just grew up in the music and art scene of L.A., and so I was always just hanging out where all the artists were hanging out, the house parties, the loft parties, the little pop-up galleries. And that goes back to Silver Lake circa ’95, when there wasn’t much going on but crazy musician and artist house parties and stuff. So once I hit my 20s and I was going to bars, I looked to those neighborhoods. I’d see there were a couple dive bars that were OK, but there was no Smalls, no Burgundy Room. For new bars, the farthest thing east that popped up was Sean McPherson’s Good Luck Bar, and that was still pretty Hollywood. So Atwater was, like, well, it was a risk. But I had a lot of friends who lived there. It was just natural to open something out there. So we weren’t, like, let’s be the groundbreakers of neighborhoods. It just happened.
You appreciate the old and original but you’re also a businessman.
I mean, personally, I don’t like anything new. If I was in charge of the city, nothing new would get built ever. [Laughs]
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What first got you into the old-timey aesthetic?
Cars started it all for me. I have an automative shop in Burbank. It’s called Old Crow Speed Shop. I’ve had that for a decade. That’s kind of like my zen place. I build cars and motorcycles. All vintage. I’m mostly a prewar guy. I started racing, landspeed racing and hotrodding. I hold seven world records. A group of us who do this look like we could be time travelers. I feel like I live in another era sometimes. A parallel universe. I love American heritage, handmade things and American products. I feel like if it’s cool it probably came from the U.S. We Americans are just now starting to celebrate our cultural importance. I feel like this place and what I do in general is part of that.
Idle Hour, 4824 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; idlehourbar.com