“Oh, yeah, they all come in,” Mama says dismissively, waving me toward a seat at the bar.
We are scanning the gajillion glossy snapshots that wallpaper the White Horse Tavern. Mama has taken nearly all of them from behind the bar on a disposable camera. I discover one that Mama didn’t shoot — she’s in it, in the arms of a heartthrob actor, a big smile on her face.
“We get so many actors. But I’m not gonna tell you who,” says Mama, with a Hungarian accent as thick as goulash. “Besides, I don’t care who you are, you make trouble, I’ll throw your ass right out. And Lindsay Lohan? She can just forget it. No one under 21, and no drugs. That’s a zero-tolerance policy.”
You can’t blame her. It took Mama a full year to clean up the Los Feliz bar that had been in her family for decades, and she intends to keep it that way.
“It was so bad,” she says. “There were hookers and drugs .?.?. it was disgusting.”
In 1997, after divorcing her husband, who hightailed it back to Europe, Vicky “Mama” Lelea took over the bar and immediately threw some asses right out.
“Then, there were days when no one came in,” Mama says with a sigh. “But we had to do what we had to do.”
Back when her ex-husband ran the place, it was the neighborhood dive, a really gritty kind of place that was so low, light didn’t penetrate the doorway. Now on Fridays and Saturdays, there’s a doorman and a line around the block. And if for a second you mourn the loss of another crusty dive bar in this town, know that if the White Horse has been transformed, it isn’t now one of those überclubs that celebutants and star-fuckers line up for — it’s just not all that swanky (thank God). Hanging at the White Horse, the entire place bathed in paprika-red light, is like hanging out in your friend’s parents’ basement, very That ’70s Show — dark wood paneling, mix-matched old cushy sofas, a pool table, a jukebox (with a heavy ’90s influence, circa Dave Matthews’ Crash). It’s a totally good make-out room. On the other hand, Mama would throw your ass right out, so I wouldn’t try it. To a whole bunch of regulars, the White Horse has become simply Mama’s Place.
Mama’s son Adrian is playing pool behind me; when he curses, Mama interrupts the story she is telling and asks him to watch his mouth. She’s explaining how she had to rebuild the whole place after 1994’s Northridge earthquake.
Adrian leans over on his cue stick: “Oh, man, she’s tough. What she went through?” he nods to Mama.
There is a toughness to her, but it’s definitely a maternal toughness. I watch her gold-ringed hands, manicured nails and the gold bracelets that Hula-Hoop around her wrists while she shakes what will become my martini. And no sooner is my drink before me, handsomely garnished with two nice-size olives, when a bowl of freshly popped, buttered popcorn comes sliding toward me. They don’t call her Mama for nothing. My friends come for the bowl of hot dogs on the bar. Sometimes, it’s salami and cheese and fruit — Mama always puts out a spread. On Fridays and Saturdays, the pool table turns into a snack buffet.
And then there’s the wedding dress, the one with a veil hanging on a coat rack outside the restrooms. A young girl, a regular, recently got engaged and complained that the ceremony would have to wait until she had enough money to buy a wedding dress. Mama spotted a dress on sale a few days later and bought it.
“It was tiny, just like the girl,” says Mama, raking those nicely polished nails through her hair.
But by the time Mama saw the girl again, the engagement was already broken off. Mama laughs. “So, you know anyone who needs a wedding dress? They can take it.”
As for her, she’s not going to get married again. “Never again,” she says as she walks over to play some Toby Keith on the jukebox. She joins me and takes a seat at the bar. The news on the two old-school televisions (no hi-def, flat-screen jobbers) is about the fallen Minnesota bridge. We fall silent watching the footage. Mama refills the popcorn bowl, slides it to me again and says, “Eat.”
White Horse Tavern, 1532 Western Ave., Los Feliz, (323) 462-8088. Open daily ?6 p.m.-2 a.m.