At the center of the city, there is a 100-foot-long ocean liner dry-docked in a parking lot. It would seem out of place in many if not most L.A. neighborhoods. Except here. Landlocked Koreatown is bobbing with nautical-themed restaurants, and you can't walk the length of a plank without stumbling into a pirate reference. Which, on a recent Sunday night, arrrrrr-med with a sailor's tolerance and 10 mateys, was exactly what I aimed to do.
We focused on three ports of call within a one-mile radius: the H.M.S. Bounty, a gloriously divey institution anchored with tall ships; Crazy Hook, a zany, pirate-populated theme restaurant; and Café Jack, the giant ocean liner in the parking lot. There are others: a deli named Café Mermaid; R Bar, which is only abstractly boatlike (but has epic karaoke nights); beer den Hite Kwang-Jang, which has a big anchor and other ocean paraphernalia, plus a sign for Moby Dick beer; and, at Eighth and Western, a brand-new building that looks like a giant steamboat tugging the chicken joint Pollo a la Brasa in its wake. Why the porthole windows and coiled rope decor, 12 miles from the Pacific?
To find out, we start at the Gaylord Apartments, the 1924 building that houses the H.M.S. Bounty. Once the tallest building in L.A., the Gaylord was ceremoniously named to honor Henry Gaylord Wilshire and his vision for a shimmering boulevard from downtown to the sea. A walk through the Gaylord's lobby (you'll have to go there anyway, to use the bathroom) gives a survey, in photos and menus, of the Bounty's history. The decor is largely original and has almost always been nautical — its names included Secret Harbor and Golden Anchor before becoming the H.M.S. Bounty in 1962.
So, what's with the ships? Here's one idea: The ability to breezily travel to exotic locales in the early 20th century brought the South Pacific — or at least the theme-restaurant version — to L.A. The original Clifton's Cafeteria location was made over in “Pacific Seas” decor in 1939, after Clifford Clinton visited Polynesia. Tiki bars like Don the Beachcomber began opening in Hollywood in 1934. At the same time, the center of Hollywood nightlife was flashing its tropical flamboyance in the Gaylord's face: The Ambassador Hotel's Cocoanut Grove was across the street. “The Cocoanut Grove was so highfalutin, the playground for stars like Clark Gable and Norma Talmadge,” says Katherine Yungmee Kim, author of Los Angeles's Koreatown. “This was like a different motif, for the seafaring man.”
While the Bounty's wall of schooners and ships-in-a-bottle might have you craving surf 'n' turf, it's best to stick to stiff drinks and cheap, greasy calories. On Sundays before 5:30 p.m., a burger, fries and a soda can be had for $3.95, and a beer and a shot of whiskey or tequila for $5. The room will begin to sway as if you're out at sea.
Our next stop, Crazy Hook, is three blocks and a world away. Where the Bounty is dignified if dingy, the 7-year-old Crazy Hook is sexed-up, scantily clad swashbucklers. The theme here is Pirates of the Caribbean, and I mean that in the most literal way: Johnny Depp stares down at you from banners hanging in the dining room. This is some serious copyright infringement.
Crazy Hook also raises the party stakes. Beer is served in massive, vertical tubes that look like bongs and is meted out by the milliliter — to give it a medicinal conceit, they call them cc's. We opt for 5,000 cc's of beer and try to order at least 5,000 cc's of food, which is half-off until 9 p.m. Our server warns us against the legendarily lip-singeing Fire Chicken and guides us toward safer options: a kimchi pancake smothered with mozzarella like a Korean pizza. And cheese corn, a bubbling vat of corn-slathered salt, sugar, mayonnaise and cheese, not unlike Mexican elotes baked into a dish.
With its amber towers of Bud and Korean pop pulsing from flat screens, dusty piles of booty and sword-wielding statues, this feels like a pirate Planet Hollywood. In fact, that's it exactly, Kim says: She thinks the reason for the fishing nets-as-drapes is that these bars are Korean love letters to L.A.'s most famous cultural export. “Koreans have this enchantment with Hollywood,” she says.
Related: Mutiny on the Bounty, the Marlon Brando version, was released in 1962, the same year the Bounty chose its name. Is Koreatown's obsession with boats actually an obsession with boat movies?
Too inoculated with Budweiser to ponder this suggestion, we navigate down Wilshire and up Western to Café Jack, where we find a possible answer: the Titanic. Or, rather, Titanic. Four stories of low-budget James Cameron. We slip into a wood-paneled booth with Kate and Leo plastered above it. Tucked into our seats are fleece blankets, which we wrap around us in preparation for when the iceberg hits. Waiting for our food, unfortunately, is like waiting for the rescue boats to arrive.
I order ramen, but I can't tell you much about what it tasted like, only that it helped to neutralize the five feet of beer. The winning dish at the table is a plastic clamshell the size of a sink, swirling with a sugar cesspool of red bean-dotted shaved ice and green tea ice cream, and topped with Fruity Pebbles, which explode like Pop Rocks on your tongue. While there's nothing titanic about it but the size, several bites of it can induce the sensation of seasickness.
Drunkenly steering a steampunk-y navigational device called a chadburn that's installed in the center of the room — sorry, deck — I woozily rewind the evening in my mind. I think about another theory, proposed by Matthew Kang, owner of Scoops Westside, who blogs at Mattatouille.com. Korean bars, he says, must have wacky interiors. “You can't have a small, cute place. Koreans are into huge, over-the-top and ridiculous.”
And that drives Kang's idea about the nauticalized neighborhood: “I think that Crazy Hook opened because of the H.M.S. Bounty, and Café Jack is a response to Crazy Hook. Anything Korean comes in waves, with one stunt to top the other.”
Jack Shin, the owner of Cafe Jack, who built the boat pretty much singlehandedly six years ago, says he's just a fan who wanted to provide a cinematic escape for his diners. “I liked the movie Titanic and watched it many times,” he says. “Everybody works too hard. Here you can pay $5 for a coffee and take an ocean cruise.”
Yet walking around in Koreatown, observing the frozen yogurt branding battles, the karaoke bars dripping with icicle lights, the coffee shops that throb more like nightclubs, using such gimmicks to attract business seems the norm. Is the ocean-bound theme simply a game of business owners trying to one-up each other?
If so, there's a way to test it: Crazy Hook will change its decor in two months. Such an announcement surely upends the seafaring stability of Koreatown's thematic nightlife. Manager Sean Kim confirmed the impending switch: “We will change, but we don't know what we will change to yet.” However, a waitress, who did not want to be named, said she's heard it would be a “love theme.”
Until then, I have my own theory: The nautical themes create this idea of a ship drifting in international waters, exempt from any country's rules for the night. It's a fitting metaphor for the lawlessness of Koreatown, where you can still smoke in many bars and it's fairly easy to order a beer after 2 a.m. (camouflaged with ice and a straw, of course). Somehow the anchors and eye patches help you achieve this level of alcohol-fueled anarchy. And as a night out on the town, it's the pirate's life for me.
H.M.S. Bounty, 3357 Wilshire Blvd.; Crazy Hook, 3250 Wilshire Blvd.; Café Jack, 508 S. Western Ave.