It borders on cultural phenomenon. The New York Times put it on a short list of destinations for swank libations. Thrillist exalted it as L.A.'s favorite on its roundup of the country's best wine bars: a massive wine selection printed nowhere and instead individually concierged into your glass by an encyclopedic bartender (armed by a lauded wine director).
But on paper at Los Angeles City Hall, Bar Covell was a juice bar. Dustin Lancaster, who founded Covell on his own vision after years of tending bar at Café Stella, learned about the discrepancy when it was time to renew his use permit, the city's approved record for a specific category of business. Somehow Covell was licensed to serve alcohol by the city and the state while another department logged it as a juice spot, even through another round of related permitting when Lancaster expanded Covell's square footage in 2011 and then got clearance in 2014 to build his five-room Hotel Covell directly above the bar.
All permitting applications were completed to the letter — from Covell's side of the transactions. Elizabeth Peterson, who assisted Bar Covell with its alcohol permit, also has completed the process for other prominent local bars Library Bar, Broadway Bar and The Association. Asked if this had happened to any of her other clients, she said it had not, but for others, "It happens. Sometimes construction [permitting] and [the city's records for the type of] use need to catch up to each other."
So last Thursday, Lancaster, now a fully fledged restaurateur with L&E Oyster Bar, El Condor, Sidebar, Hermosillo, Highland Park Brewery, Augustine and the Hi-Hat in his portfolio, went to City Hall to convince a planning administrator to let him do what he's been doing for years with great success and no incidents.
Bar Covell's landlord, Dan Mellinkoff, spoke at the hearing, urging Jack Chiang, the associate zoning administrator who heard the case, to allow Covell to continue operating as what Mellinkoff considers an anchor for other businesses in its nook on Hollywood Boulevard near Vermont Avenue, at the nexus of Los Feliz, East Hollywood and Silver Lake. When the previous tenants — a driving school, an eyeglass store and a casting studio — were there, the neighborhood lacked a sense of community, he said.
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Mellinkoff believes Covell magnetized Go Get 'Em Tiger's coffee and HomeState's tacos to the ever more populated strip. Soon, a McConnell's ice cream franchise will open next door.
Chiang cleared Bar Covell to carry on, pending promised written support from the local neighborhood council. "I'm inclined to approve this project," Chiang told Lancaster and Bar Covell co-owner Matthew Kaner. The East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and the police department have until Nov. 30 to log their support, the last step before a written decision from Chiang makes Bar Covell official in city records.
Lancaster and Kaner weren't told who dropped the ball. They're not sweating it. "Once we found that [city records needed an update], we were happy to correct it," Lancaster said after the hearing. Asked for an explanation of where the city went wrong, chief zoning administrator Linn Wiatt said in an email that the details of the slip "are not within the purview of the Office of Zoning Administration" and may be answered by other departments.
All at Bar Covell will be business as usual. Lancaster said, "We'll continue to try to make the neighborhood happy."