With the restaurant industry’s ongoing fascination with Old Hollywood, it’s begun to feel as if even our old places are new. We have a face-lifted cafeteria downtown, dozens of gleaming midcentury-inspired spots and as many reimaginings of the old-fashioned as we have bars.
But if you’re willing to look, there are watering holes around town that have allowed themselves to age. The carpets are worn and stained from decades of sloshed drinks, the tears in the vinyl on your stool are older than you are, and the bartender wears a vest not to look vintage but because he is vintage.
These are not the glamorous reminders of a gently faded Golden Age. But when you’re looking to take in some real history — the stories of people and places that were almost famous, the tales of near-misses and maybe-next-times — these bars are where you should turn.
Here are three great places to drink in that other Old L.A.
The SmokeHouse may not be famous, but no restaurant is closer to celebrity — literally. The 1940s-era steakhouse is wedged into the narrow corridor between the NBC Universal and Warner Bros. studio lots, in the otherwise quiet Toluca Lake/Forest Lawn/Universal City gray zone. The exterior screams antique, and the interior matches that vibe. It's dark as hell, wood-paneled with a couple of brick accent walls, a little shrine of signed headshots of actors you mostly don’t recognize, and a long, angular bar. The man behind that bar is friendly in a gruff sort of way, dressed all in black and sporting what may be the hardest-working suspenders in Hollywood, and perhaps the only functioning ones in town.
He whips up a mean martini, strong and clean with a little sidecar in a bowl of ice. The restaurant specializes in cheesy garlic bread, of which you’re going to need an order (it’s a lot of martini). Everyone else will address the barman by name, but he will treat them no more warmly for it. “I didn’t move to Hollywood to live in the Valley,” the guy sitting next to you says. “Yeah, but things change,” his female companion replies. You look around, taking in the faded photos on the wall, the pink neon “cocktails” sign over the door and the giant flatscreen TV behind the bar. She is at least half right.
4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank; (818) 845-3731, smokehouse1946.com.
The front entrance of Damon’s in Glendale may be the most subtle tiki façade in town. But once you get inside, there are no punches pulled. It is fully tiki-ed out, with thatched walls and tropical plants and fake huts and bamboo-coated pillars, a look that suggests not so much an actual island bar as a sensationalized midcentury vision of one.
The cocktail menu, as you may imagine, has a large handful of well-made tiki drinks and bar classics. Unlike some other places, the tiki drinks are legitimately fabulous, particularly the mai tai and the chi chi. They are fruity without tasting like corn syrup and creamy without reaching sludgy milkshake viscosity. These drinks are also stronger than they taste, and if you come on the right night – Monday for mai tais and Tuesday for chi chis – they are shockingly cheap. No matter how many you have, you’ll never drink enough to convince yourself that Damon’s is a tropical paradise, but you may drink yourself back to a time when it kinda-sorta looked like one.
317 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 507-1510, damonsglendale.com.
The Valley Inn
You can see the Sherman Oaks Galleria from the front door of the Valley Inn, and from that vantage point it looks positively neo-modernist, an imposing block of glass and white stone gazing down from the other side of the 405. You cannot see the Valley Inn from the Galleria, though — or maybe you can and no one has noticed. As a patron at the Valley Inn, that's a major plus.
Inside the bar it is warm and comfortable and quiet, Vin Scully’s timeless voice and a couple of soft conversations the only soundtrack. Instead of movie stars gracing the walls, it’s signed portraits of local sports heroes, and it is a pleasure to sip an excellent old-fashioned under the gaze of John Wooden, Tommy Lasorda, Chick Hearn and Bob Hunter. They watch you as you watch their successors on the two TVs mounted at the end of the bar.
The guy a couple seats down tells you that ballplayers don’t know how to slide anymore, that he used to do sliding drills at every practice, and then he orders another beer. The bartender looks too young to drink, much less pour, but he knows everyone there and their usual order, and he’s quick with a refill. The antique cash register clangs dramatically as it eats your cash, and with a drink in your hand, Vin on the speakers and Chick on the wall, you’d be hard-pressed to find a happier place.
4557 Sherman Oaks Ave., Sherman Oaks; (818) 784-1163, valleyinnrestaurantandbar.com.