Contrary to what you might be thinking, this photo, shot by one Keith Scharwath, was not taken on Halloween. When Keith snapped it with his iPhone, I had absolutely no idea what was going on behind me. But really, it was no different than any other Friday night in my corner of Los Angeles. I love this photo because it sums up the experience of living in LA—and perhaps specifically Hollywood, where I lived for seven years—perfectly. And it was also taken at one of my very favorite places in the city.
There’s a bar called the Powerhouse where I spent my formative LA years. When I lived in a bungalow tucked into a hill above Highland, the bar was a block away from my tiny living room, and therefore, an extension of it. And also, the antithesis of it. For a time, the Powerhouse’s only decor consisted of a series of disturbing clown paintings. The bathroom security alternated between a chain lock with a broken chain to no locks and a large hole where a doorknob once was. The alleyway in the back wrapped around a Chinese restaurant that courteously left its greasy rags and aprons out so intoxicated people could wear them. I loved every inch of that bar, mostly because every inch of that bar was covered in quite graphic graffiti.
In many ways, the Powerhouse is your standard dive bar—dark, loud, dangerous when you consider the number of darts being hurled through the air by incapacitated arms. But the Powerhouse is also a block away from the Kodak Theater. If you look carefully during the Oscars telecast, you can see its sign blinking casually just across the street from where the red carpet begins. It is adjacent to the frightening entertainment megaplex that houses LA’s cacophony of tour buses, cement handprints and terrazzo stars—the rest of the world’s idea of Hollywood. But to me, Hollywood is all about this dingy, glorious bar that once had a hole ripped into its front leather banquette so big we filled it with beer bottles one night, just for fun.
And that brings me to Superman. (You know I’m no good at spotting celebrities, but I always recognize superheroes.) This is a man named Christopher Dennis, who is one of the Chinese Theater characters—he dresses up and collects tips in exchange for photos on Hollywood Boulevard. In 2007 he was the star of the documentary Confessions of a Superhero. Recently, the characters have been embroiled in legal battles with the city, one of the most tragic entertainment tales of all time.
Because of this bar’s proximity to their workplace, many of the Chinese Theater characters drink at the Powerhouse. They come in costume, right after their shift ends. They walk from the other Hollywood, cross the street, step through the door, order a beer, and no one bats an eye. Millions of dazed people arrive at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland looking for heartwrenching stories of fantasy and fame among the Forever 21 and American Apparel. In reality, those stories are right inside this bar.
And that’s what makes the Powerhouse the best bar in LA. Holding its own against a terrifying new mall and the walls of tourists all these years has only added to its grimy greatness. It’s staring down a Gap across the street (which once featured a 20-foot-tall Sarah Jessica Parker) with a steely, whiskey-soaked gaze. It’s giving the finger to the new lofts which now must peer down into its scary, razor-wire encrusted alley. It’s cleaned up a bit since the first time I walked through its doors. But there most important part is still there: a long, sticky bar where we can all come together—the barflies, the unemployed writers, the superheroes (and later, when they patched the banquettes, the hipsters) and agree that living in LA is superbly weird. Sometimes we need a drink just to make us feel normal.
What’s your favorite bar in LA?
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