Lance Bass has been coming to West Hollywood for more than half of his life, since he was the bass singer of the teen pop sensation NSYNC. It was the place where he was first able to be himself and come out as a gay man. When the Rocco’s Tavern group reached out to him to partner in the newly opened Rocco’s WeHo in the heart of West Hollywood, the former Dancing with the Stars finalist jumped at the chance.
“I have a lot of loves in my life, but art, music and food are my favorite things, and we’ve been able to put those all together in one place,” Bass tells L.A. Weekly on a personalized tour of the airy 5,000-square-foot space designed specifically for the neighborhood.
“It was a no-brainer when the guys came to me. Years ago I’d always go to the Studio City location to watch my football games, and I just loved the guys. When they told me that they got this spot — which is the best corner in West Hollywood — I couldn’t believe it. I knew how many people were fighting for it and the fact that they got it, I had to be involved. I hopped on board immediately.”
The corner spot at Santa Monica Boulevard and San Vicente Boulevard, where the two rainbow crosswalks meet, seats about 200 with indoor and outdoor dining and will be offering live music, brunch and burlesque. The bar food menu that includes the famous Rocco’s Tavern New York pizza and spicy wings has added a vegan pizza and vegetarian options to adjust to the neighborhood’s healthy appetite as well.
“We’re working on a Southern-style Sunday brunch,” Bass says. “I’m from New Orleans, so I want live blues to come to the strip, a bluesy brunch with some of my favorite Southern recipes, BBQ and biscuits. I want the live music to spill out onto the street on sunny Sundays from the outdoor patio. It reminds me of being in New Orleans or Austin.”
Artist James Kirtley collaborated with ONE Archives and Bass’ husband Michael Turchin to leverage their artistic backgrounds and create a visual representation of the LGBTQ+ movement through photography, graphic designs and paintings. A black-and-white timeline wall at Rocco’s WeHo represents the LGBTQ and civil rights struggles and victories from the 1940s through today.
“I’m super excited about the art here, which is all of my husband’s work and is basically his gallery now,” says the heartthrob who recently celebrated his 40th birthday at Rocco’s WeHo surrounded by his former NSYNC bandmates. “One side of the wall is a different vibe from the other and adds some needed pops of color. Each image was curated for this neighborhood — Madonna, Britney. It’s very LGBTQ-centric and loves of the community. This wall will be ever-changing and bringing in different artists and showcasing a lot of great LGBTQ artists.”
The images decorating the West Hollywood location are meant not only to serve as a history lesson of how far the movement has come, but also a reminder that remaining vigilant is crucial. A haunting photo of Matthew Shepard figures prominently on the black and white wall. But not all of the artwork inside Rocco’s is serious; there are fun vintage posters and comical ads framed throughout. Rocco’s wants to remind their patrons of the importance of love and that pride is victory.
“I came to the space and it told me what it needed,” says Roger Toussaint who has designed all six of the Rocco’s Taverns locations and transformed the former Citibank building that nobody wanted to touch for years. “I don’t design for a look; I design for a feel. The look comes from how you want it to feel. All of our taverns have an open air feel, no matter where you’re sitting you feel like you are outdoors, that’s a really important feeling. All the glass doors to the patio open for that indoor/outdoor feel.”
“We’ve been looking at this five-block area for the last 10 years,” says co-owner Leo Amari of going from bank to bar and Toussaint’s vision. “Where ever we go, we inundate ourselves into the neighborhood and try to put ourselves in as an important piece of the community. In Studio City there are a lot of schools, so we get involved in the charities there. We find out the needs of the community and try to help out. In Pasadena we get involved with the little leagues.” Other locations developed by the Rocco’s team from New York include Culver City, Westwood Village and West Hollywood and the 901 Bar & Grill by USC.
There are a lot of great memories in the neighborhood for Bass, who discovered it more than 20 years ago for the first time with a girlfriend.
“So many of the amazing places here have survived the test of time which is hard to do,” he says. “But it shows how much of a community this is. People love their places and are naturally supportive. Rage across the street was the first gay bar I ever stepped foot into and it’s still going strong. A lot of places come and go because they forget about the neighborhood. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen here. We want this to be the local spot. So far so good.”
Rocco’s WeHo, 8900 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (424) 343-0123
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