Photo by Sophie Olmsted
Six blocks toward the river from the glass towers of the New Downtown, and just a staircase up from Skid Row, the habitués of Cole’s are snapping up lottery tickets. “Man, I won’t even give a week’s notice,” muses one gent as he sips his beer. “Let my old lady try and find me,” jokes another. It seems lots of folks, the ones who work too hard for too little, are popping in and plopping down a buck. It’s a cheap price for a dream, or a laugh.
Maybe you’ve never been to Cole’s. Charitably speaking, the neighborhood has gone a bit dodgy since Harry Cole opened his restaurant in 1908 in the Pacific Electric Building, which was designed by mega-mogul Henry Huntington. Tallest building west of the Mississippi, it was at the time, the main terminal for the Pacific Electric Railway. Commuters could grab a French-dip sandwich or even get a check cashed. Harry Cole started the first check-cashing service in L.A. Cole’s claims also to be the originator of the French dip, and still uses the same preparation methods as in 1908, the same year that Philippe Mathieu, of Philippe, claims as well to have invented the dunked sandwich. Hmmm!
You’ve probably seen Cole’s on TV — The Profiler, The X-Files and NYPD Blue have all shot scenes there. Or perhaps you noticed the magnificent mahogany bar, the Tiffany shades, the old oak tables, in a scene from L.A. Confidential or Forrest Gump. Cole’s is a chameleon, able to pass for the saloons of Eastern cities. It’s also the history of Los Angeles, told both through its clientele — regulars who have been cozying up to the bar since the ’50s — and through its accouterments: tables made from the sides of the old Red Cars, maps of the rail system, beauty-pageant photos from the ’20s, menus circa the late ’20s, when a bourbon and water was just a quarter.
Cole’s always makes me wistful for another L.A. Not the L.A. of my childhood, although Cole’s was always a welcome respite after Dad would drop my mom, my sister and me off for a day of used-book shopping on Fifth Street, in a downtown that was then somewhat desolate. Cole’s pulls me into the L.A. of fiction, the noir city of Raymond Chandler — the city I sometimes wish I lived in.
One of the strangest, sweetest nights I’ve ever spent in a bar was at Cole’s, about 10 years ago. The Wizard of Oz came on the TV, and slowly everyone in the bar — for the most part, people who were a little tattered around the edges — stopped talking and started going “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” As the movie ended, the sound of sniffling filled the room. 118 E. Sixth St., downtown; (213) 622-4090.