A couple of months ago, a post appeared on the page of a secret Facebook group, which to protect the innocent shall remain nameless. The group is comprised of Los Angeles artists, writers, historians, journalists and others long entrenched in the L.A. scene. The post in question concerned an old Los Angeles Times article a member had found from February 20, 1994, titled “A Swinging Time at the Monkey Bar.”
The short piece, detailing an upcoming party for Jack Nicholson at the Monkey Bar restaurant, included the line, “the monkeys should be swinging from their branches.” This literary flight-of-fancy set the online group atwitter. In the not too distant past, had our simian brethren swung over one of our most beloved movie stars as he sipped a martini behind dark shades? Was the Monkey Bar really a bar with monkeys?
No. There were no monkeys at Monkey Bar. But everyone else was there.
Monkey Bar opened in October of 1992, at 8225 Beverly Boulevard. Its origins could not have been more “Hollywood.” The official face of the restaurant was Alan Finkelstein, a soft-spoken man with a big mustache. Finkelstein had been many things in his life: a party boy at scenes like Studio 54, the boyfriend of the supermodel Esme, owner of a New York boutique called Insport. But most importantly, he was Jack Nicholson’s best friend, a crucial member of the fabled “Jack Pack.”
The two men had been inseparable since they met in the 1980s, and Finkelstein had even become a movie producer, getting his sole credit on IMDB for helping produce "The Two Jakes," Nicholson and Robert Towne’s 1990 sequel to "Chinatown." It was understood around Los Angeles that Nicholson was a significant backer of Monkey Bar, though when asked, Finkelstein gave a vague answer worthy of the media shy Nicholson. "He's a partner in my whole life. He's a partner in everything I do.”
Soon, Monkey Bar was the coolest spot in town, “a night-club like spot full of rich, pampered faces.” “We hear that the place is so hot that during peak times, the only people allowed at the bar are those waiting for tables,” one reporter wrote breathlessly. Food writer Ruth Reichl described the scene for the Los Angeles Times:
"The look is perfect-there's a bar in front (packed with women with very long hair and very short skirts and men with $400 blue jeans), then a small room (if there's a Siberia at Monkey Bar, this is it), and finally one square, windowless room with curved green leather booths, a tiger-striped rug, etched-glass panels and wonderful lamps with black-monkey bases. This is a room made for a gossip columnist-everybody's visible, everybody's almost inaccessible. It's pretty difficult to bother somebody slouched into the back of a well-curved booth."
The food wasn’t shoddy either, boasting a fusion menu from the “global table” that Reichl mused was the “90s on a plate.” Head Chef Gordon Naccarato had cut his teeth at Michael’s in Santa Monica, before opening the celebrity mecca Gordon’s in Aspen with Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner. “Naccarato cooks as someone who loves ethnic food,” food writer Laurie Ochoa wrote. “If we’re lucky, this is the direction high-end ethnic cooking is going- food inspired not by cookbooks, but by direct experience.” She particularly liked Monkey Bar’s Puerto Nuevo-style lobster tacos, while Jonathan Gold loved the chili noodles.
Monkey Bar’s food even had the approval of Julia Phillips, producing powerhouse and author of the scandalous 1991 Hollywood expose "You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again." “The roast chicken stuffed with mushrooms and dressing and garlic mashed potatoes from Monkey Bar” was her favorite meal in L.A., she told the Los Angeles Times. “That place is such an absolute scene right now, if someone had it sent to my home I’d be happy. And except for the mashed potatoes it is really low-cal.”
What Monkey Bar really served up was sleazy-chic star-power. It was particularly popular with beefy male hotties from the '70s, '80s and '90s on the prowl. Nicholson was, of course, a constant presence. Don Henley, Mickey Rourke and Kiefer Sutherland were all regulars. Shannon Doherty made it one of her party stops, while more refined stars like Glenn Close and Nick Nolte dined with James Brooks in a secluded booth. There were many industry soirees: at a Grammy party for the Atlantic Group, Nicholson partied with David Crosby, Mr. Big (no, not that Mr. Big) and First Brother Roger Clinton. When Nicholson received the Life Achievement Award from AFI, he unsurprisingly held the after-party at Monkey Bar.
From its opening, Monkey Bar was also the favorite hang-out of Heidi Fleiss, ‘90s “madam-to-the-stars” and current macaw breeder. When she wasn’t at other hotspots like Bar One or Tatou, the witty, pencil thin madam could be found in a booth, surrounded by some of her hottest “girls.” Given the high-end, high living, just plain high clientele at the restaurant, it is hard to imagine that going to Monkey Bar wasn’t good for Fleiss’s bottom line. "What I tell everybody else is that I have no curiosity what anybody does, as long as they pay their check,” assistant manager Ron Hardy told a reporter. “We've all heard a lot of things, and I don't care one way or another. We're all here to make sure people have a good time."
After her arrest in June 1993, the instantly notorious Fleiss continued to be welcome at Monkey Bar. One night in July, she became enraged when a woman in the booth next to hers began taunting her. Fed up, Fleiss stood up and shouted to the entire restaurant, "That's right, ladies and gentlemen, I am an alleged madam, and that is a $25 whore!" The woman was furious and tossed a glass of cognac on Fleiss’s “designer blazer.” In retaliation, the tiny Fleiss decked her with a fierce right hook.
Understandably, the Monkey Bar became a go-to spot for the burgeoning paparazzi and professional autograph hunters. Hardy explained that the restaurant was ambivalent about all the attention. “[It] is good I guess, as long as they spell the name right.” But many of Monkey Bar’s celebrity patrons were not so thrilled. One night, the folks loitering outside heard that Madonna was in the building. Famed autograph hunter Alfie Pettit decided to take matters into his own hands."(Alfie) barged through the door, and ran in and out in 30 seconds," a fellow autograph hunter remembered. "He didn't get (the autograph). Madonna was in a room. But he was able to scope it out and came outside bragging about it." The next day, he and the Material Girl had a fierce fight outside her home.
Monkey Bar even played a small part in the tragic circus that defined its era. In "Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted," Faye Resnick’s unflattering biography of her supposed best friend Nicole Simpson, Resnick tells the story of going to Monkey Bar with Nicole. The ladies met up with O.J. Simpson’s best friends, Marcus Allen and A.C. Cowlings. Resnick was uncomfortable: Allen, who was O.J.’s best friend and Nicole’s unrequited crush, put his hand on her thigh. But then Keith Zlomsowitch, who managed the company that helped finance Monkey Bar and was a casual date of Nicole’s, saved the day:
"Keith came over to our table. He wanted us to join…Alan Finkelstein, who was sitting with Don Henley. Nicole and I had never met Don before, so we went over to their table and had a great time."
By the end of 1994, Monkey Bar’s rather sordid reputation began to grow and the food began to go downhill. When the restaurant hosted a private fundraiser for St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels, Chef Naccarato was pleased to host a group of nuns. "I wanted to show off the Monkey Bar because we don't get a lot of nuns in here,” Naccarato joked, “since we've been connected with Heidi and her ilk, it was nice having the opposite end of the spectrum to maybe exorcise the demons.”
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"Plus,” he quipped, “the nuns ate more than Heidi."
Just as quickly as Monkey Bar burst onto the scene, the ride was over. Hot-spots don’t remain hot forever. In December of 1994, Monkey Bar closed. It seems to have reopened as a private club, and limped along for a year or so until shutting its doors for good in 1996. But the ‘90s talent show still continued to the bitter end- one week Howard Stern, shock-jock extraordinaire, broadcast his show from the venue. And the king of swagger himself showed up one night to serenade the crowd. “Guitarist Jimmy Rip was playing to a small, intimate and hip crowd Thanksgiving Eve,” the New York Daily News reported in 1995. “Mick Jagger casually sauntered nearby and opened with a rendition of "Red House" and then proceeded to sing for an hour.”
According to the Nicholson biography "Five Easy Decades," Monkey Bar was closed for good by the State Department of Labor for failure to meet payroll taxes. But Finkelstein wasn’t down for the count for long. In 1997, he and a group of partners opened the West Coast branch of New York’s Vietnamese powerhouse Indochine. “Built from the ashes of the Monkey Bar,” the restaurant was in the same location on Beverly Boulevard, and soon became a popular place for celebrities like Dolly Parton and Winona Ryder. His life partnership with Nicholson also continued. After witnessing Nicholson struggle to read a bill at an Aspen restaurant, he spent seven years (and reportedly a lot of Nicholson’s money) creating LensCard, the first credit card with a built in magnifying glass. He is currently part-owner of a chain of popular pizzerias and still seems to be one of Nicholson’s dearest friends.
Today, Monkey Bar’s old location is now Jar Restaurant. Nicholson still cheers at Lakers games, Henley still releases albums and Faye Resnick is now a sometime cast member of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." These celebrities have had much longer staying power than one of their favorite haunts. How telling it is that only 20 years after it closed a group of almost 300 Angeleno obsessives had no idea it had even existed. What hot restaurants today will soon meet a similar fate? Maybe actual monkeys would have given Monkey Bar the staying power it needed. Sometimes, all you need is a gimmick.