Midnight is boring on the Sunset Strip. Its bougie boutiques are lit up but long closed. Its parking always sucks. Just down the road, even the Playboy Mansion is only a shadow — its former proprietor living out his twilight years with a roommate and one final wife. The only young people outside are on the sidewalk by the Whiskey A Go-Go. They’ve driven here from the suburbs to watch their friend’s band pay to play.
There are few remaining spots on this westward stretch of Sunset that have clung onto their original essential coolness by hiding in the folds of the hills. At the Chateau Marmont, your privacy will still be respected if you’re a starlet on a bender. At Book Soup, you can still get recommendations from a soon-to-break screenwriter. And at the Rainbow Bar & Grill, you can still party like (and maybe with) a rock star.
It’s always midnight in the dining room of the Rainbow Bar and Grill. It is especially midnight when it's midnight here. Wrought-iron fixtures hang from the ceiling. There are red bulbs in the lamps and red votives on the table. Multicolored Christmas lights are strung over extra-wide booths. Above them, shrines have been staged as tribute to some of the Rainbow’s famous denizens: Cheap Trick, Poison and Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, for whom the bar was a second home until his death in January.
I order the Sinful Sundae and a Jack on the rocks. My waitress is genuinely friendly to me, even though I’m taking up a booth alone. She calls me “doll” and warns against the sundae. “It’s just ice cream and whipped cream and chocolate syrup. That’s it. They make it sound so good. Sinful Sundae. You think there will be a brownie in it or something.” I get the cheesecake instead. George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” pipes through this room that is both coke den and church.
Across the way, two young women, who have dressed up to be here, sit at a booth of their own. A bloated middle-aged man, who is inexplicably carrying a set of drumsticks, stops before them, asks “First time here?” and then takes this as an invitation to join the women at their table. He squeezes between them, and the three of them pose for photos. This man is some kind of famous. The women giggle as he beats the table with his drumsticks. I stare, not because I recognize him but because I’m frustrated that I don’t.
From outside, the smell of marijuana wafts in. It blends nicely with the sizzling mozzarella on the pizzas that are propped up everywhere on metal table stands. My plain cheesecake is solid — drizzled in chocolate syrup and whipped cream the way the waitress suggested it. The whiskey pour is generous and gets me warm right away.
The anonymous celebrity quotes Annie Hall now. “Did you eat? Jew eat?” The young women can muster only blank, polite smiles.
“Anyway,” says the struggling man to his captive audience, “Waitress! Keep ’em coming!”
A woman in a flowing black dress drifts in and approaches one table at a time. “There’s a jam session happening upstairs,” she tells us each. “Come on up. No cover charge.”
The steps to the attic of the Rainbow are carpeted. The ceilings are low, and there is a full-length mirror fastened above the stairwell. Here, for better or worse, you can get one of the bar’s only well-lit full-body glimpses of yourself. “Up!” a wooden sign with painted hot air balloons directs me. All the way up the stairs, up past the restrooms, live bass and drum beats pulse through the attic’s hidden entrance.
This uppermost enclave of the Rainbow is cloaked in fishermen’s nets. There are ship’s wheels on the walls and heavy ropes dangling from the ceiling. A creaky wood ladder leads to a small loft within this loft — where a velvet entry rope dangles unhinged and two cocktail tables sit eerily unoccupied — lit with that dark prism of Christmas lights. Beyond the tables is a tiny doorway to an even smaller space to sit. Outside this place to hide (within a place to hide), a wooden placard has been hand-painted with the inscription, “Lair of the Hollywood Vampires.”
The lair's cabinet: Alice Cooper (president), Keith Moon (vice president), Bob Brown (treasurer), John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Micky Dolenz (members).
Belushi ate his last meal at the Rainbow Bar and Grill. Guns N' Roses filmed multiple videos here. The restaurant's opening in 1973 was a party for Elton John. But the Rainbow’s eternal life springs not just from the royal blood of its history. It’s still a place where tonight, five nameless musicians have lugged their gear across Sunset and through the Rainbow's back stairwell in hopes that a few other loners will listen.
The stage upstairs is awkwardly tucked below the audience. We are a small but attentive bunch, scooted as close as possible to the level’s edge. We peer through a split in the room at the five of them wailing on their instruments below us. The woman from downstairs now throws herself onto her drum set. She’s got a stuffed Gonzo strapped to the front of her rig. The sound is too big for the tiny space we’re in. It feels good though, like bass rattling through a car seat. On the functioning Pac Man game I’m using as a table, Pac Man floats through the same maze, even though the game is over.
On their breaks, the musicians go directly from the stage to the back patio outside. This is where cigarette smoking is permitted, and even encouraged. The bar here is crowded. There is more pizza on stands and more drunks who need it. A young man in leather pants and a hip hat finishes licking the side of a blunt. An older man with pink skin and bleached hair joyfully stumbles back to what looks like his usual table. Cocktail waitresses with Manic Panic highlights wait near the service area to fill their trays. They gaze half-interested at the news story that plays out on the TV above the bar: Kelly Osbourne, a longtime regular, is being sued by Kelly Pugh, the mistress of her father, Ozzy (a Rainbow founding father).
At the entrance to the back bar, a guard, dressed in jeans and a well-tailored blazer, sits on a stool. He has an earpiece and quietly surveys the crowd. As people trickle in, he checks their IDs, then directs them to the hostess stand, where most of the light comes from a brightly colored aquarium. In it, a handful of fish float aimlessly through electric blue rocks and artificial plants. The fish themselves are all that’s changed in this lobby for years. The tank has remained the same.
9015 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 278-4232, rainbowbarandgrill.com.