Like many of L.A.'s oldest neighborhoods, Exposition Park is changing fast. The onetime site of a race track is now the light rail–accessible home to a space shuttle and (temporarily) a pro football team. A new soccer stadium and the Fig, a proposed mixed-use complex at 39th and Figueroa, foretell a future building boom near the aged jewel of Los Angeles public space.
While the development future is bright for Exposition Park, a light from the city’s past just went out.
Down at the corner of Menlo and King, on the park’s southern boundary, a thick patina of dust, discarded wrappers and other street detritus has already collected between the padlocked gate and front door of a worn, single-story structure. Graffiti is scrawled across the spire where faded paint still reads “cocktails.”
The space soon ill hold Banditos Tacos & Tequila, an agave-dealing sports bar from Barbarella and Bugatta head Anat Escher. But most in this part of town know it best as the former home of the Menlo Club.
It was a “neighborhood bar.” Former owner Reggie Jones can’t stress that point enough. From 2004 to July of this year, Jones held the coveted “48” liquor license, quenching the thirst of locals from south of Exposition Park and Vermont Square as well as casual game-day drinkers and errant Natural History Museum staff members.
Nondescript to a fault, the humble haunt featured an oval bar and a modest stage in the back, where you’d find live blues music and open mics on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The drink selection was the sort of bare-bones fare that happily predated the craft cocktail phenomenon. The bottled beer list was a love letter to the Miller Brewing Company.
Longtime L.A. blues drummer and producer Dap Gibson helped retool the Menlo’s live music program in 2009 and 2010. He used to live around the corner from the bar in the late ’60s and early ’70s. “It was exactly like it is now,” he says, “The outside is identical.”
“It was nothing to walk in to a bar like the Menlo and see Miles Davis or Ramsey Lewis.”
It was a 20th-century bar living in a 21st-century world. That was a good thing. The unassuming night spot was as much a cherished hangout as it was a window into the city’s past.
Business records show that the Menlo Club as we knew it came into formal being in 1959. Its roots as a store, restaurant and lounge go back much further.
The first building went up at 900 Santa Barbara Ave. (later renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) in 1920, when C.P. Legates built a six-bedroom, single-story family residence on the site for the princely sum of $4,800. Eventually a café and cocktail lounge went up on the lot. Over the ensuing years, stucco and brick replaced the front plate glass window, an awning went up and the kitchen was expanded. It grew into a venue befitting a much larger cultural moment.
The Menlo and the music it offered were byproducts of wave after wave of midcentury immigration to Los Angeles from the Midwest and Deep South. Lured by the promise of manufacturing jobs and ample housing, the new bedrock working class brought with it a world of potent cultural forms from the American heartland.
From Woody Guthrie folk music to Jelly Roll Morton Dixieland jazz, 20th-century Los Angeles rang with an abundance of popular music. The city’s vibrant sonic identity called out to first-generation Angelenos and longtime residents alike from a plethora of little night spots just like the Menlo.
The Dodger Club, the Living Room, the Cork, Total Experience, Maverick’s Flat, the Pied Piper, the Name of the Game and the Flying Fox are but a few of the clubs that anchored a robust L.A. scene that catered to jazz, blues, R&B and eventually funk. Some are still around. Most are gone. Each was a part of a once-familiar world where spectacular talent coalesced.
“There were so many clubs back then,” Gibson recalls. “It was nothing to walk in to a bar like the Menlo and see Miles Davis or Ramsey Lewis.” Indeed, Reggie Jones claims Miles himself sat in at the Menlo.
Long vital, the legacy of that Great Migration sound eventually faded from prominence. After Leimert Park’s famed Babe's and Ricky’s closed in April 2010, the Menlo Club was one of the last places in the city that regularly programmed blues.
Alas, Reggie Jones struggled to pivot toward the city’s changing demographics. “We were unable to attract the new downtown and USC crowd,” he admits.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Jones says his plan to woo grad students and college staff to his King Boulevard haunt involved running ads in the Daily Trojan for years. But few responded to his open call for bartenders and event promoters. “There’s an unwritten law,” he says, “that USC kids don’t go south of King.”
The problem goes deeper. Though Jones recalls the club’s heyday fondly, he also reflects on the problems that began to haunt the bar’s previous owners, the Offlees.
“People started drinking less and doing other substances,” he laments.
Yet the bar endured in the final days of its many-decade run thanks to a crew of dedicated regulars and the promise of a little live music. One Facebook reviewer called it a “bar for ‘grown’ people.” Indeed, the clientele was a seasoned lot.
I was lucky enough to make it into the Menlo this year on Super Bowl Sunday. Both the front and rear doors were propped open, bleeding sunlight and 75-degree warmth into the otherwise cavelike room. The bartender with the pixie cut was a gregarious woman. She let me serve as guinea pig for her drink special of the day — an inexpensive, ad hoc sangria made with two varieties of Sutter Home wine.
A steady stream of customers, decked out mostly in Cam Newton gear, trickled in as I took down the sweet wine blend. It wasn’t bad.
The house sound system was solid. Speakers were triangulated around the bar with an unseen woofer kicking out bass so round and full it felt like it was coming up out of the stools. A fellow in a dark vest and black fedora kept the jukebox fed between sips of one brown liquor or another.
His choices were a smattering of 2Pac classics, “Love Rollercoaster” by Ohio Players and Kool & the Gang’s early synth classic “Summer Madness.” The tune caller was no fool — he got his money’s worth with Bobby Bland’s nearly nine-minute “Memphis Monday Morning.”
As the track's languid rimshots, rambling keys and lover’s laments moaned out of the speakers, he sat kinglike at the end of the bar, where rich light intruding from both doors nearly touched on the floor behind him.
“What you know about Bobby Bland?” he asked me.