The San Fernando Valley may not be the first "gayborhood" one thinks of in Los Angeles, but maybe it should be. West Hollywood is, of course, the biggest and best-known, while downtown L.A. is the up-and-coming, rapidly expanding region in terms of ragers and residents. Silver Lake has both the history and a handful of great bars to keep it in the running, and Long Beach has some fun LGBTQ options but is so far that it’s practically another state.
The Valley, however, is sort of special. It has its own unique and bustling gay nightlife, and it's steeped in history, providing unique alternatives (and less traffic) to L.A.'s other gayborhoods. On Sunday, Aug. 12, the first annual Valley Pride Street Festival will be held in North Hollywood. Taking place on Burbank Boulevard between Cahuenga and Strohm, the festival will be a large block party celebrating the valley’s LGBTQ community, featuring vendors and entertainment. Now you may be asking yourself, do we need another Pride celebration? Is the Valley LGBTQ community large enough to shut down streets for? The answer is yes, and as with WeHo, DTLA, even Long Beach, a great gay night out can be had in the San Fernando Valley. Here's my latest guide:
My friends and I like to start the evening with a nice meal in a quieter setting, to catch up and get some food in our stomach before the drinking begins. While none of the Valley gay bars or clubs offers food, there is a gay-friendly, gay-owned restaurant in North Hollywood’s Garland Hotel called the Front Yard. The Garland’s owner and asset manager, James Crank, is an out and proud gay man whose family has a long history with the property. His parents built the hotel in 1971 and opened it as a Howard Johnson's, which featured a Howard Johnson restaurant/lounge that was a popular gay hangout back in the '70s. “As I got older, I just had these older gay guys come up to me and say, ‘You probably didn’t know it, but in the ’70s, your bar was like the gay hangout. Then we’d all get a room and go upstairs.’ So I was really kind of proud of that,” Crank says.
When Crank’s father died in the late '80s, he gave up his pursuit of a master's degree in counseling gay youth and gay family services to help his mom run the hotel. Shortly after, they changed from a Howard Johnson to a Holiday Inn, which lasted until 2013, when the contract was up. Crank, who became the sole partner after his mom’s death, decided to go independent. He worked with his life partner, Scott, on a $20 million renovation that turned the Garland into what it is today, including the restaurant that would become the Front Yard. “My vision was to launch ourselves as the happy alternative boutique hotel, a place where everybody feels included,” Crank says. “As I created my team, I really made it very clear that this would be a place … [with people who are] really tolerant and really champion diversity.”
That energy definitely can be felt at the Front Yard, which often has more locals than hotel guests dining there. Crank says eating there is “like arriving in a beautiful California outdoor garden under towering sycamores for a fully California, authentically designed cuisine that celebrates diversity not only of its guests and its staff but of its food.” The Front Yard features many delicious food options, including three “made for many” plates that can be easily shared in a big group: a crispy whole branzino fish, a large rib-eye steak and fried chicken. It also offers four flatbreads for those with a smaller appetite, including one with peach and prosciutto. Finally, its cocktails are tasty and unique, including one called the Cranky Jay, named after Crank himself, which features gin, St. Germain liqueur and Champagne (the restaurant also offers brunch with bottomless mimosas and rosé). “[The Front Yard] has a really nice mix of people and a very diverse group of people. … I think a lot of that comes from Scott and I being gay and being aware of what our community want, what it wants to eat and drink and how it wants to be treated,” Crank says. “Of course, courting the gay community is always a great badge of honor when our people show up because they’re so discerning and hard to please, and I love them.”
After a satisfying dinner, we're off to our first stop of the night just a mile away: Oil Can Harry’s in Studio City. The only gay bar in L.A. offering line dancing, it’s a warm place with a mixed, eclectic crowd. Event coordinator, head bartender and former manager Tommy Young describes it as “a blast from the past. We do country, we do disco. We do the ’70s music, we do the old country music, we do jazz, we do high-energy,” he says. Opening in 1968, it was one of three bars under the Oil Can Harry’s banner, the other two being in San Francisco and Palm Springs (those two are no longer in business). Originally owned by Bert Charot and his business partner, Bob Tomasino, Oil Can Harry’s started off as a burlesque club before becoming a disco club in the ’70s, when, according to Young, people would line up down the street to get in. A little later, the club introduced country, which is now one of its signature nights.
“The first day I walked in — and I hear this from everybody — it feels like home,” Young says. “There’s a friendliness and a homeliness about the place. The family that I have here is unbelievable.” It’s not just the people, however, that make the club feel like home for Young — it’s also the nostalgic music. “[With] the music, we’re going back to a time where we enjoyed our youth, so when you walk in, it does have [a welcoming] feel.” Country music and line dancing, including line-dancing lessons, kick up on Tuesday and Friday nights; there's salsa on Thursday nights and disco on Saturday nights. Every second and third Sunday are musical nights with a live singer and band (you can bring your own sheet music to hear it played), and karaoke is offered in the Loft upstairs on Fridays and Saturdays.
Now owned by Tomasino’s life partner, John Fagan, after Charot and Tomasino died, the legacy of the original owners remains intact. “When Bob was alive, people used to say this is the most wonderful place on earth. And it was because Bob would sit at the front and he would welcome every single person through that door. In the gay world, some don’t have a family [because they were] dismissed by family, and that’s what we call the magic in the can,” Young says. That magic has been alive for half a century now, as the club is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“[From what I know], supposedly we’re the oldest gay bar west of the Mississippi. … West Hollywood is pretty amazing but if you want something different, you have to go [somewhere else, and] we have a little of something for everybody in the Valley. And it’s not as expensive!” Young says. “You come in here and you get a hug from this one and that one, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, green, white, yellow. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male, female, transgender, vegetable, animal, mineral, you’re going to enjoy this place for sure.”
After some line dancing and karaoke, we take a Lyft 3.5 miles from Studio City to the Bullet Bar, a small but friendly leather bar in North Hollywood. Another historic spot, the Bullet Bar has been around as a gay fetish bar since the 1960s under various names including the Officer’s Club, the Hangman, the Signal and the Junction. It became Bullet Bar in 1983. Now it's known as a friendly, neighborhood spot. “There’s definitely a Cheers atmosphere. People know each other, they hang out, they have their little cliques,” says Michael Lara, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary as owner (officially, his title is president; he owns all stock of the corporation doing business as the Bullet Bar). “[It’s] basically a non-attitude bar as far as pretense. Everybody not only knows everybody but everybody knows each other’s dirt, too, so we can’t talk too much shit.
“We’re not just a leather bar, we’re basically an apple pie with many different slices and we all seem to get along," Lara adds. "People respect each other’s diversity. Even in our leather-themed nights like Cigar Bar, we would have not only leather men in there but some leather women in there, too,” he says.
“We have a drag show once a month, we have Hot Rock Night. … I like diversity, I think that’s important and within the bubble of the LGBT community, we’re all going to have different fetishes, we’re all going to have different ideas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think the gay leather community fits within that puzzle. I wouldn’t want everybody just to be leather.” Lara says a lot of their regulars come in for happy hour and on weeknights, and they’re seeing more young people “putting their own stamp” on the leather and fetish community.
Ultimately, Lara has a vision for gay nightlife in the Valley that extends beyond the Bullet Bar. “We have very few bars left in the San Fernando Valley. Originally when I started in this business, we had 12 gay or lesbian bars; we’re now down to four. The problem is we’re so spread out. We have approximately 1.8 million people who live in the San Fernando Valley. We’re around 5 percent [of the population, which] equals around 80,000 people. We have a large amount of people who identify within the LGBT community but we don’t have a center location,” he says.
For Lara, the first step in changing this was starting the Valley Pride Street Festival this year, but that's just a starting point. “I would like to see the NoHo area right by Burbank Boulevard kind of be like a duplicate of West Hollywood on Santa Monica Boulevard," he explains. "We can use a Gay and Lesbian Center satellite office on Burbank. [I want] a place where the community can go and find services, shop, go to nightlife, go to church. My whole vision is for us to have a community right here in North Hollywood. We need it. I think that a lot more young gay and women would stay in the Valley to spend money."
After drinking by the fire pit on the Bullet Bar’s patio and shopping for some leather gear at the patio store, it's time to dance at Club Cobra, which is only half a mile from the Bullet Bar. Described by owner-operator Marty Sokol as “the most fun party in town,” this Latino gay bar is the place to go if you want to dance (or watch the talented Cobra Dancers). “We feel, my [business] partner Julio Licon and I, it’s about our team. We’re not the fanciest place in town but we do believe that we’re the most fun because our team is fully focused on every person in the room having a great time,” Sokol says.
The history of Cobra begins with the owner’s first club, Chico, opened in the ’90s in East LA. “Over a decade, [we really became] a destination. Many of our clientele were coming from all over the city … [so] it was a far trip for them to come to East L.A. We thought we would make our second location in North Hollywood. It seemed to fit our needs perfectly. Immediately we were a hit. That was the end of 2007,” Sokol explains.
While Cobra began as a Latin club, it’s since expanded beyond the Latin LGBT community. “Predominantly we are a Latin-based club, but that’s changed over the years. There was a time when the gay scene was much more segregated than it is now. If you come to our club on any given night, you’re certainly going to run into a large number of Latinos but you’re also going to run into African-Americans, whites, Asians,” Sokol says. “The other great thing about Club Cobra is that our demo age-wise is [very diverse]. We get very young kids as young as 21 and then we get adults over the age of 50. We get everyone.”
Cobra has a great relationship with the trans community as well. It hosts two trans nights a week called Trans Fix, a lower-key one that has more of a “café vibe” on Monday nights and a clubbier one on Thursday nights. Also most, if not all, of the female bartenders are trans women. “We have a lot of friends in the trans community and some of them have become team members,” Sokol says.
Perhaps Cobra has remained a pillar of the Valley LGBT community because of the community outreach it does. It provides free HIV testing every weekend, and if you get tested for HIV, you get in free. If you take an Uber or a Lyft to Cobra, you get $10 at the door to spend at the bar.
"We’re constantly doing fundraising and community events that benefit not just gay, lesbian and transgender causes but also causes for children,” Sokol says. “We’re supporting schools, we’re doing Toys for Tots, we’re supporting orphanages in Mexico. We’re doing whatever we can do to be a part of the community, and what happened over the years is that we built a community. People meet at Cobra [who have] gotten married. People feel a part of our team. They don’t feel like a customer, they feel like a part of the party and a part of the family.”
And Sokol is committed to changing and growing with the community. “North Hollywood has changed in the 30 years that I’ve lived in L.A. It’s almost unrecognizable. It’s certainly much more vibrant but also people are moving here at a fantastic pace. … It’s vibrant with bars, it’s vibrant with restaurants, there’s an eclectic energy,” he says.
After losing ourselves on the dance floor, we needed a place to unwind and have our final night caps, so we made the trek to C. Frenz Bar and Nightclub in Reseda, about a 13-mile ride from Club Cobra. If that’s too far to travel for just a night cap, then we would strongly encourage a separate night out at this Reseda staple, also full of history and a friendly, more low-key alternative to WeHo. “We’re more of a friendly neighborhood bar that accepts everybody, gay, straight, transgender, bisexual,” says manager and mixologist Chris Morse, who’s been at C. Frenz for about 13 years. "We truly thrive on making everybody feel welcome where they don’t feel the hustle and bustle trying to impress people like you would in West Hollywood."
C. Frenz first opened as a gay bar in the 1970s called Hobo. In the ’80s it became Incognito (also known as Incog); in the ’90s it was called Bananas; and in 2005 the bar opened as C. Frenz Nightclub. The bar isn’t huge but has a large space for dancing and a big outside patio. Its unique space makes it function as a bar on some nights and as a club on others, depending which night of the week you go.
Happy hour from 3 to 8 p.m. is pretty much a staple every day of the week. Sunday afternoons it's Beer Bust, where customers pay $10 upfront and then each beer after that is $1. Sunday night around 10 p.m. is a drag show called Divas of the Valley, hosted by Mercedes Electra; it has become one of the most popular drag shows not only in the Valley but in all of Los Angeles. Mondays it’s "underwear night," when anybody who gets into their underwear gets money off their drinks. The first Tuesday of every month is karaoke, Wednesday nights are Latin-themed and Thursdays are “Cheap and Easy” or “Thirsty Thursday” nights that feature two-for-one drink specials. Friday and Saturday nights offer DJs, go-go boys and drink specials including $5 margaritas.
No matter what night of the week, C. Frenz is a welcoming place for all. Even the name is a play on words, meaning this is the place where you go to see your friends. “It’s not like West Hollywood, where you walk in and you have no clue who anybody is,” Morse says. “Everybody knows everybody [here].”
The same might be said of the Valley itself — at least it feels that way after a night hopping from one place to another. This area was a centerpiece of gay nightlife 40 to 50 years ago, and the fact that so many places are still functioning gay bars this many years later should be celebrated and honored. It may not be the first gayborhood that people in town think of, but after Sunday's Pride festivities, that may change.
"It’s amazing because people don’t realize that there is something in the Valley for everybody,” says Oil Can Harry’s Young. “C. Frenz [has] the drag thing going on, the Bullet is a neighborhood leather bar, which I just love. That’s a little taste of everything. You really don’t have this much diversity in such a small space.”
The Front Yard, 4222 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; (818) 255-7290, thefrontyardla.com.
Oil Can Harry's, 11502 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 760-9749, oilcanharrysla.com.
The Bullet Bar, 10522 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 762-8890, bulletbarla.com.
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Club Cobra, 10937 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 760-9798, clubcobrala.com.
C. Frenz, 7026 Reseda Blvd., Reseda; (818) 996-2976, cfrenzbar.com.
For information and tickets for the Valley Pride Street Festival taking place on Aug. 12, go to valleypride.org.
[Ed. note: The Front Yard underwent a $20 million restoration. The figure originally given was incorrect. We regret the error.]