At 1 a.m. most of downtown L.A is shut up like a clam, except for one spot of warmth in the desolate warehouse district--called Gorky's.
Gorky's is a 24-hour "Russian" cafe that draws bums and trendoids alike to its funky insides where original art hangs on the walls and live music--everything from classical to folk to jazz--is played. On a recent night a reggae band had finished its set, but the lead singer stayed to play guitar and sing classic rock 'n' roll tunes. Knowing that there's nothing that brings a crowd together at 1 a.m. like a vintage John Denver song, he launched into "Country Roads," and had everyone singing along, from blue-haired punks to a couple decked out in black-tie.
Gorky's is probably the best ersatz SoHo haunt this city has to offer. Even dyed-in-the-wool capitalists feel at home here, where Russian dishes like piroshki (meat and vegetables in pastry) are served alongside hot fudge sundaes.
All the food is served cafeteria-style; the menu also includes Georgian chicken, meat loaf, made-to-order omelettes and pasta, salads, sandwiches and huge slices of homemade apple pie. Dinners run about $6, omelettes about $5, desserts about $2.50.
Trying to find a seat at peak hours is no picnic. The straight-back wood booths along the sides are the most popular, but the long tables in the center aren't bad, especially for the outgoing who enjoy striking up conversations with total strangers. Introverts may want to grab a local paper from the rack and read it while slurping their borsch.
Many of the live-nearby artists who once staked a claim on the restaurant have all but fled, convinced that the place has become overrun with tragically unhip visitors from other parts.
Owner Fred Powers admits that the scope of customers has become broader in recent months, but adds that it's helped to create a more eclectic scene. "The people-watching is incredible," says Powers, a smiling, bearded fellow whose slight paunch is evidence of his fondness for the apple pie.
"There are seven or eight different types of crowds as you watch the transition during the day. You see people in formal attire and people in jeans, and there's no rhyme or reason to it."
Powers, a former builder and developer, took over from Gorky's original owner, Judith Markoff, a year and a half ago because he "wanted to be a part of what Gorky's means to Los Angeles. This is the underground of L.A."
He has expanded the menu, adding items like hot fudge sundaes and made-to-order pasta, in addition to Russian dishes, most from his grandmother's recipes. "We're trying to reach new levels of culinary achievement," he explained.
"I like to come here after the theater because it's alive," remarked Elizabeth Herron, a local architect who was there with a friend after seeing "The Knee Plays." "I have a romantic notion of living in an artists' loft, and coming here reminds me of that. I don't think there's anything else like it."
Gorky's, 536 East 8th St., Los Angeles; (213) 627-4060.