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Long Live the Death of Lounge

lounger
Photograph of lounger Joey Meyers by Christopher Gardner; makeup by Zuri.

The trendy act of sipping martinis in leopard-spotted bars is dying, but it's not quite dead yet

By Heidi Pollock

It's Saturday night and the cigar room at Star's is empty, the Coconut Grove is playing house music and the line into the Red Room is so long that only a Los Angelean would wait in it. Can it be that Lounge is already dead? Yes, no, maybe, never, and it depends.

On the surface, Lounge appears to be all about animal prints, nebulously shaped furniture, complex drinks and that infamous "space-age bachelor-pad" music. Lounge is not, nor has it ever been, about swing, dancing or working up a sweat. Nor was lounge meant to be about tiki, fruit drinks or outdoor pig roasts. Lounge, to review for those of you who have become hopelessly muddled by desperate marketing propaganda, consists of drinking, mingling and snacking carried out in no particular order over an indefinite period of time. Nothing more, nothing less.

Recently, I was lucky enough to experience the perfect Lounge evening. Unbelievably enough, this night occurred at Bruno's. Things began around 7pm, with dessert--a seasonal sorbet, if I recall. Well, some of us began with dessert. Some of us began with bourbon. Some had wine. Some had salad. Some had the same salad twice. And then we had to order the chocolate soufflé again. And more oysters. Oh, and two or three more rounds of drinks. And maybe we had the cheese plate? I forget. We were in the bar for hours, eating, drinking, talking, snacking, divulging, indulging, sipping, chatting--in other words, lounging.

Excessive noise, crowds and prices all run counter to Lounge, and the presence of even one of those three negative elements instantly revokes a venue's Lounge credibility. One could easily argue that for this reason true Lounge has been dead for as long as the trend Lounge has lived. And really, that's not nearly as pedantic as it sounds. Lounge is fundamentally about private spaces. The key word in "space-age bachelor-pad" is "pad."

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The Timelime of Lounge.

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Lounge and all its once risqué loose morals necessarily originated in the privacy of the apartment. When it spilled out of private spaces, it gravitated anywhere that conventional mainstream society wouldn't get in the way of a good time: badly decorated dive bars, late-night diners and rundown, forgotten places of earlier generations. Of course during the original Lounge era "earlier generations" meant the '50s, '40s and '30s, which is the only way to account for the fact that the Lounge of rapidly dying trend fame is so easily confused with swing, rockabilly and big band.

The HiBall Lounge is a good example of Lounge's confused amalgamation of subtrends. While the HiBall still hosts the occasional Lounge night, clearly the spotlight now shines on the Swingers. Saturday night, the dance floor is packed with couples whose mouths mumble their secret "one-two-three" dance-class mantras. The dancers are earnest and endearing and without a doubt having a fabulous time. I asked an off-duty HiBall bouncer whether Lounge was dead, and he said, "No. Of course not. Look at this crowd."

Well, the crowd was dancing the lindy to Swing, which is pretty much the polar opposite of lounging, activity-wise. Sure, the HiBall has the requisite tiger-print wall covering and the traditional round red booths, and the night I popped in, they actually ran out of martini glasses, which would indicate that the crowd is at least drinking something other than microbrews, but there is definitely too much activity, too much dancing, far too much horn section for it to any longer deserve the Lounge appellation. When the proverbial lights come back on at the end of the evening, Lounge is dead at the HiBall.

Which is not to say that the HiBall is a bad place or a doomed place. It won't die merely because Lounge is dead. The HiBall is a high-concept spot, and like Trad'r Sam's or Gordon Biersch, it fills a niche and remains successful regardless of whether or not there's a trend around to validate the theme.

Other places have not fared so well. Many of the spots that topped the Lounge lists published everywhere back in the heyday of the hype have either abandoned the trend or find themselves grasping at straws. It's been about two years since 1015 Folsom hosted the Lounge scene, and the DuNord gave up on Lounge Night some time back. Of course, those places exist to service whatever trend is blowing through, and they adapted to Lounge for as long as was necessary and have long since moved on. In contrast, Harry Denton's Starlight Room seems a bit lost without Lounge, but hosting a nightclub (say it isn't so) on Wednesdays is not going to help any. Not that I suggest they take the same route as the Heart & Soul, which has closed its doors and changed owners and is currently undergoing renovations.

Swingers
From the movie Swingers ©Miramax

Quite, Please: Lounge is fundamentally about private spaces.

But no place is as tragically confused and lost without the Lounge scene as the Coconut Grove. An expansive, almost perfectly lit room that could feasibly be one of the city's better nightspots, the Coconut Grove is suffering a severe post-trend identity crisis. Acid jazz plays over an awkward sound system while incongruous disco lights flash randomly in front of the stage. A large group of somberly suited individuals celebrates someone's 50th birthday party in the balcony overlooking a bar crowd populated by tight miniskirts and mock turtlenecks. While The Girls and I try to enjoy our outrageously priced, alarmingly small cocktails, three young women of questionable ages descend upon us to find out why I'm taking notes. They are very enthusiastic and offer up their own descriptions of the Saturday scene: "It's very Persian. You know?" No, actually, I don't.

Hoping to get a clearer idea from someone more coherent, one of my lucky minions bravely approaches the strange guy scribbling maniacally in his journal at the end of the bar. He turns out to be friends with the DJs setting up onstage under the unfortunate disco lights and knowingly reveals that they'll be spinning "house, deep house and danceable Persian." Danceable Persian? The plot thickens. Much, much later someone kindly explains to me that the Coconut Grove was purchased last year by a "Persian." Nevertheless, the Coconut Grove is clearly undergoing some kind of transformation, and until the process is finished, it's probably best not to peek under the bandages.

Suffice to say that when the Lounge thing hit, my first reaction was "finally I'll be able to get a decent Manhattan in this town." No more having to request bitters. No more patiently explaining to bartenders that Jack Daniel's is not a bourbon. No more frosty, sideways glances from my blonder sisters as they nursed blush wines. I would fit in. I would be trendy. "My god," began my second reaction, "when will it be over?" What is it about being trendy that makes our skin crawl? Why do we go out of our way to avoid looking too hip, too au courant? Vanity? Ideology? Malaise?

No matter, in any case it is nearly impossible to weather a trend when that trend embodies something you once thought of as part your unique, personal, quirky identity. Yet somehow, I have made it. For the fleeting moment during which Lounge dangled her luscious legs over the arm of the trend throne, I repeatedly told myself that I was not mindlessly following the latest fashion. I kept reminding myself that the desires that first drove me into the arms of Lounge were reasonable, timeless and utterly unrelated to shag carpeting and pickled onions.

loungers

The recent Lounge movement is the ultimate manifestation of a very simple desire: to drink in a pleasant atmosphere. That such a simple want would spark a trend seems inevitable in retrospect. During the late '80s in Los Angeles, I hung out in the Derby, the Dresden and the Formosa Room--in all those bars made famous by the movie Swingers.

My friends and I drank there not because we were inherently cool or ahead of the curve but because those were the places with no lines, no cover charges, music you could talk around and, most importantly, seating. The '80s, if you will recall, were all about nightclubs and not being on the list and having your plastic glass of god-knows-what-beverage knocked out of your hand and crushed on the dance floor.

Admittedly there are hundreds of dive bars all over L.A. that easily would have met our free-with-seats criterion. I can't deny that in choosing those particular places, the presence of red booths exercised an effect. But the desire to drink in an unhurried establishment lacking both dart boards and Dockers-clad boys goes beyond such the trivial "Is it cool?" This basic desire is as widespread as the places that fulfill it are scarce.

Lounge may be dying, but it's not quite dead yet. If it were dead, I could tell you where to lounge about on a Saturday night. As it is, I don't even need my whole hand to count the local establishments capable of meeting even my most minimal lounge criteria. But as Lounge begins to die (or morph into Swing), a few places have once again become accessible to those who know when and where to look. Those of you who helped start the trend, who inadvertently turned the simple act of mature drinking into a Lifestyle, who caused old, unheard-of joints to be renovated and packaged and marketed to a younger generation--you can crawl out from your swank pads and begin to enjoy happy hour once more in the light, dim as it should be, of the public space.

The trick is to look for places that are still clinging to the Lounge trend and drop by during their off hours. For example, you might want to try early Sunday evening in the Starlight Room. The place is without a doubt one of the more sumptuous bars in San Francisco. (If only all those awful tourists and office workers would go away. Shouldn't they be noshing on fusion cuisine by now?) The Starlight Room menu contains just the right number of single-malt scotches and tasty morsels to see you through an entire evening, and its red velvet booths and gorgeous waitresses clad in slinky floor-length black dresses are more reminiscent of the '40s than the '60s. And make no mistake, this place can be truly overcrowded and unhip.

My recent Monday night adventure there was horrific. The music was described by my intrepid companions as "Party Rap Lite (TM)." When Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" came on, the room literally squealed with joy and the dance floor filled with entire table populations there on corporate social outings. With luck, Lounge will die soon so that we can all return to enjoy this beautiful, elegant, utterly unique space in a city otherwise filled with tedious, well-lighted beer bars. In the meantime, don't make the ascent to the Starlight Room too late at night and try to avoid Monday and Wednesday altogether.

Swingers
From the movie Swingers ©Miramax

Star Quality: Hundreds of bars around L.A. meet the free-with-seats criterion. Some of them were made famous by the movie Swingers.

Another place for which the death of Lounge can come none to soon is the Essex. Although the crowd is clearly forking over the exorbitant cover charge because someone told someone who once dated their ex-boyfriend's sister that Lounge is "in," the patrons are decidedly un-Lounge. As one person put it, the crowd is basically just "secretaries in fuck-me outfits and guys who wear suits on Saturday."

From my dash through the entrance around 7:30 last Friday night, I'd have to say that this description is not inaccurate. The Essex may have the Lounge decor, drinks and music, but it's questionable whether or not Lounge ever lived here for long. More likely the downtown location with its proximity to bawdy Broadway and boring Business scared off even the most eager Loungers long ago, leaving behind exactly the kind of crowd you'd expect. However, for the real Lounge lizards, for those of you who crave happy hours imbued with dimly lit elegance, low music and a wide choice of inviting leather chairs from which to choose, the Essex is ideal. An Essex employee went out of her way to stress that the cigar room doesn't have bartender service until 9pm because it "doesn't really get going until later." That, my Lounge-loving friends, is the secret I share with you.

Lounge is dying because there are no lounges in which to lounge. A perfect example of this maxim was embodied by Lounge-A-Palooza--a wholly misguided and ill-conceived event held recently at the Paradise Lounge. The main room was peopled with stiff, poorly dressed individuals who stared impassively at the various dancers in front of the stage.

In contrast the rest of the venue was almost bearable. The smaller room set aside for the highly entertaining and underappreciated World Accordion to Ottmar looked more Lounge-like in that people were seated in a semblance of relaxation, but the noise from the inexperienced dancers in the main room and the inexperienced drinkers in the neighboring barroom effectively killed any remaining pretensions to Lounge that the event might have had. In fact, the only place at Lounge-A-Palooza where the Lounge lovers were to be found was outside on the sidewalk--elegantly attired, pleasantly conversant and sorely disappointed by the event where they mingled gracefully while working out their contingency plans.

As the Lounge-A-Palooza refugees planned their escapes to the likes of the Orbit Room and the Li Po, my friend "The Bombshell" and I fled to Bix, where the oppressive, staid atmosphere is but a trivial annoyance standing between you and a cocktail so perfect that even a night beginning with Lounge-A-Palooza can be quickly transformed into an evening of delight.

Long live the death of Lounge if it relinquishes places like the Starlight Room and Bruno's from the stranglehold of Trend's greedy grasp. The empty places of yesterday were lounges, and so Lounge became trendy, and the places became mobbed and the people who simply wanted to go out and drink long and languorously with their friends were forced out into the cold, hard streets to resume the eternal search for the ideal archetypal nighttime spot.

True Lounge-lovers will always be looking for these perfect spaces that meet the elusive criteria of accessible drinks served up in an accommodating atmosphere. And have no fear, they will find them, and when they do, those spaces will become cool and hip and trendy and the rest of you will eventually hear about them.

Witness McCarthy's. A few doors down from Bruno's is an unattractive, barren establishment lighted so brightly you get the feeling that angels or interrogators were in charge of the interior design. And yet I have been there more times than I'm willing to admit. Why? Because Bruno's is crowded and noisy and hot, and when I want to have a drink and a gossip with my friends who live around the corner, well, ambiance is nice but so is elbow room. I am hardly the only person who's latched on to this locale. No fewer than three people have actually suggested McCarthy's as a viable alternative-Bruno's destination in the past month--three very much been-there-done-that, where's-it-at-tomorrow people.

But apparently it's coming to a head, because "The Bombshell" just emailed me mere moments ago to say that McCarthy's has almost for sure been bought out or is being renovated or something and "Watch out, because the cool patrol is just around the corner."

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From the September 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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