Last week, on Thursday, Jan. 28, L.A.'s latest live-music venue quietly made its debut with the Honkytonk Hacienda, a country music night normally held at El Cid. The show went down with little fanfare, as did the live music over the next two nights. But after more than six months of preparation, the Hi Hat in Highland Park was officially open for business.
“We want to slow build and work the kinks out and do it right,” says the club's co-owner, Dustin Lancaster. “We’re not giant music mogul guys. We’re bar guys, so that’s the part I knew we could pull off. The music side, it’s not for amateurs. So we are gonna slow-play it until we get it right.”
Calling Lancaster a “bar guy” is a bit of understatement. All told, the young entrepreneur now owns eight L.A. bars and restaurants, including Bar Covell in Los Feliz, the L&E Oyster Bar in Silver Lake, Augustine Wine Bar in Sherman Oaks, and the Hermosillo, one block down York Boulevard from the Hi Hat. With his Hermosillo partners Ross Stephenson and Michael Blackman, Lancaster made a play for the 60-year-old, 4,500-square-foot space that housed Highland Park Billiards last July, continuing to run the space as a pool hall while they went about converting it into a concert venue.
“I said, the only way I want this building is if we can get live entertainment,” Lancaster says. He and his partners worked quickly to get the support of local authorities, doing walk-throughs with representatives from L.A. City Councilmember Jose Huizar's office and LAPD's vice department. “We said, ‘This is what we want to do in this space. We believe music can be done tastefully and that this neighborhood can get behind it.'” A quirk of L.A. zoning eased the process — as a billiards hall, the building was already zoned C4, the same category that covers live entertainment.
Despite being one of L.A.'s most popular neighborhoods for musicians to live in, Highland Park has struggled to provide a venue for them to play in. The Church on York briefly filled that role in 2014, but owner Graeme Flegenheimer failed to secure the necessary permits and was eventually shut down. The York bar, across the street from the Hi Hat, stopped booking rock bands after too many neighborhood noise complaints; it now only has jazz and instrumental music on weekends. Bands occasionally play All Star Lanes, the bowling alley near the intersection of York and Eagle Rock Boulevard, but it's a makeshift venue at best.
Lancaster, Stephenson and Blackman, who had been operating the Hermosillo for about two years when Church on York opened its doors, watched Flegenheimer's venue closely and took some lessons from both its brief success and its ultimate demise. “That was one of the ballsiest moves I’ve ever seen,” Lancaster says, almost admiringly. “That dude didn’t do anything that you’re required to do.” But after Church on York's closure, he and his partners sensed pent-up demand in the neighborhood for a better venue.
“People are starved” for live music in Highland Park, he says. And in the Hi Hat's first week, the response “has been overwhelmingly positive. There’s so much excitement and so much buzz.”
A week after the Hi Hat's official opening, on a Thursday night, Lancaster stands at the end of the club's long bar, drinking craft beer from a can and watching a folk-rock trio called Alyeska, one of three local bands playing tonight. Clean-cut in a pale peach shirt, black jeans and crisp white sneakers, he stands out amidst the room's mostly scruffy, flannel-and-leather-clad attendees.
He takes out his phone to show photos of the old billiards hall, proudly pointing out his team's many improvements: the removal of chipped wood paneling and stucco walls to reveal the well-preserved brick underneath, a cramped drop ceiling ripped out to give the huge space an airy, warehouse-like feel. “A lot of what we did was just demo,” he says.
Two pool tables remain, presided over by one of the few wall decorations: a kitschy painting of James Dean shooting billiards, salvaged from a back hallway of the old pool hall. At the front of room, a small, open kitchen serves burgers, potato tacos and other bar snacks. For now, the bar is beer and wine only, but the selection is good and prices are reasonable by Highland Park's rapidly gentrifying standards; a can of Tecate will set you back $4. (Lancaster says a full liquor permit is not a “top priority,” but they do plan to eventually apply for one.)
At the back of the room, the stage faces sideways, making it easier for patrons at the bar to see the band and also to converse, since the sound system is angled away from them. Along the wall opposite the stage is a row of raised bench seating, a configuration Lancaster borrowed from the Continental Club in Austin, Texas. A raised VIP area occupies a back corner.
Official capacity is 300, although the enormous space feels like it could hold twice that. By the time the evening's second band, Warbly Jets, takes the stage, there are perhaps 200 people in attendance, some leaning on the bar or shooting pool, but most clustered around the stage.
Tonight's event was booked by Kevin Bronson of Buzzbands.la, but the venue's regular talent buyer is Britt Witt, formerly of the Bootleg Theater and DoLA (and a former L.A. Weekly contributor). A petite blonde in a black leather jacket, Witt cruises around the room greeting guests, most of whom she seems to know. Already, the Hi Hat is luring in Highland Park's musician community in force.
Witt says her goal is to focus on booking local bands, with the occasion national touring act, plus some mixed programming similar to what she did at the Bootleg. She mentions that comedy and jazz nights are in the works. “I don't want it to be all generic, three-band-a-night shows,” she says. For now, many shows will be just $5 at the door, though it remains to be seen whether that model will be workable in the long term. “I want all the bands to get paid,” she insists.
As the evening's headliner, a recently transplanted San Francisco quintet called The Soft White Sixties, takes the stage, the Hi Hat already feels like a success. The soulful rock group, led by powerhouse vocalist Octavio Genera, is on fire, and the Mastermind sound system is punchy and clean, with just enough reverb from the exposed brick walls to make the rhythm section sound gigantic. By midnight, as the band is wrapping up, the room is buzzing with excitement.
The only question mark hanging over the whole venture will likely be the neighborhood itself. York Boulevard is a narrow commercial corridor, with single-family homes directly behind the businesses. Lancaster says he and his partners took all the necessary steps to properly soundproof their new venue, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to keep the noise complaints at bay.
“We’re very mindful of the neighborhood,” says Lancaster. “My partners, Ross and Michael, both live in Highland Park, within blocks of both of our establishments.”
Ultimately, Lancaster believes neighborhood support for the Hi Hat will far outweigh any complaints, either from the neighbors or from former Highland Park Billiards patrons. “This serves this neighborhood much better than the use before,” he says. “And it means something to us to have the neighborhood be excited about what we’re doing, because that’s who we’re doing it for.”
The Hi Hat is at 5043 York Blvd. in Highland Park. For more info, including a list of upcoming shows, visit hihat.la.