Back in June, news came out that a new music venue was taking over the historic building at 901 E. First St. in downtown's Arts District: the Moroccan Lounge, the latest venture from the owners of New York City's Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge and L.A.'s Teragram Ballroom (which has already become a staple L.A. venue in just two years since it opened).
The Swier brothers, Michael and Brian, and partner Joe Baxley have a knack for turning nothing into something — the Teragram, for instance, had been a long-shuttered movie theater by the time the team got to work on it. So despite the checkered past of this new location, which has been home to a string of doomed clubs and restaurants over the past 15 years — and is rumored to be haunted — we're cautiously optimistic about the success of the Moroccan.
After the venue’s official unveiling to the public last night, Sept. 19, cautious optimism prevails.
Street parking in this particular corner of downtown L.A. is ample (for now, anyway). Upon entering the lounge through a pointed archway, attendees will find a food counter to the left serving a minimal but varied menu including such offerings as a chicken and waffle sandwich, a spiced beet salad and a “Moroccan poutine” that could somehow be prepared vegan. It’s not every day that you walk into a music venue and find yourself thinking about dinner, but that’s kind of what the Moroccan Lounge is going for, Michael Swier says.
“The idea was, much like the Teragram, that the restaurant itself would be a reason to come by and grab a bite, even if you’re not going to a show,” he says, noting that the lounge area is nonticketed and open to the public. “We’re hoping it becomes a good happy-hour spot for locals.” From 5 to 7 p.m., the Moroccan's happy-hour menu features $4 draft beers, $5 well drinks and food running the gamut of 4 to 6 bucks — so you can be well-fed and well-boozed for cheap, without then having to worry about making it to the venue in time for your show.
The restaurant, a dimly lit, brick-lined room, filled with espresso-colored tables and benches and lifted by pops of color from the Moroccan tapestries floating along the walls, is warm and inviting. The theme essentially created itself, Swier says, pointing to the bones of the space, from the lancet archway entrance to the patterned tile ceiling. Brian Swier, architect behind the Teragram, is responsible for the luxurious, leather-bound interior design.
The restaurant is very intimate, potentially too much so. At an industry soft opening last week, the lounge area was so packed that it would be difficult to imagine a server being able to find you in that sea of people, even if you are lucky enough to find a table. Last night, however, despite presenting a sold-out show, with most of the crowd hanging out in the music area of the venue, the lounge was comfortable and cozy — albeit loud due to an in-house DJ slinging classic punk plus sound bleed from the show going on in the next room. All in all, the vibe at the bar and lounge is great but it's not a place we’d recommend taking a first date, unless you like shouting at each other.
At the far side of the lounge, opposite the entrance, is the double door to enter the actual venue. The room itself doesn’t contain a bar, but there's a window to the main bar in the lounge area. Keeping the realms separate was intentional, says Michael Swier, who wanted to minimize any distraction from the connection between audience and artist. “Even at the Teragram, you know, you walk into the room and it’s all about the music,” he says. “The idea is, I want the focus to be on the stage.”
On opening night, staff seemed to have no trouble managing the flow of people coming in and out of the main room — though we suspect, in time, nonticketed guests sneaking past whoever is checking tickets and stamping wrists could become a problem. This might be especially true because of the high-caliber acts talent buyer Duncan Smith, who previously booked acts at Resident, has already added to the calendar, including BØRNS, Grizzly Bear and Geographer. The Moroccan's capacity is only 275, so it's likely that most of these shows will sell out quickly, much like Toronto punk act PUP’s show did last night.
For those who did snag a ticket, though, the show was a treat. PUP has a history of playing sparingly in Los Angeles (and when they do, it’s usually at a festival), so seeing the band in a room with fewer than 300 people was surely something the fans moshing in the front will always remember. The Moroccan Lounge appears already to be on track to becoming a hip local haunt — for fans and ghosts alike.