The reason Los Angeles isn't a late-night town is that there are no late-night places--and particularly no late-night alternatives to bars, Victor Puca contended. So he and Sharyn Rubenstein, both transplanted New Yorkers, opened Gasoline Alley, a coffee house/cafe on Melrose Avenue that closes at 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
Los Angeles wasn't ready at first. Tired after a month of looking at each other waiting for customers, the two friends started playing their favorite game, Scrabble, to pass time.
Suddenly, people came in asking, "Are you finished with the board?" Puca said. Then they'd say, "What a great idea!" Then, customers started donating their own board games, telling their friends and soon, Rubenstein said, the place was packed with actors, writers, students, trendies and even, yes, parents.
After six months, they were operating in the black. The walls were turned into an art gallery; poetry readings were instituted Sunday afternoons.
The hard-core regulars start arriving at 9 p.m., after the first movies of the evening let out. They may have to wait on the sidewalk for a table in the long, narrow room. Warm summer evenings, Rubenstein and Puca set up tables outside. Couples take the tables for two; others can pick up games--bridge, backgammon and Trivial Pursuit--at tables for four.
"There's no place like this anywhere, where you can just hang out," said Michael Arabian, an actor/director who had been playing Pounce, a card game, with friends for two hours. Neither he nor his girlfriend likes bars, actor Todd Mandell said. "Here you can meet people without feeling that people are looking you over."
UCLA student Sheireen Dunlap, 21, waited outside with visiting relatives from out of town. The game tables create an air of intellectualism, she said, "like back in the beatnik time." Several customers mentioned they appreciated the alcohol-free environment. At first, many customers were members of A-groups: Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Rubenstein said.
Members of the L.A. Writers Block meet around the corner. "We come here afterward to talk further, philosophize and talk over our scripts," said playwright Jane Anderson, also an ex-New Yorker.
She and friend Tess Ayers, an art director, had brought their own game of cribbage.
Rat-a-tat cinema talk shoots back and forth over chess, Parcheesi, Rook, Word Power and the Baby Boomer edition of Trivial Pursuit. Customers donated Bible Trivia and Dr. Ruth's Game of Good Sex, but that, Puca said, is no longer available. Monopoly was pulled because it took too long to play and players were monopolizing the tables, he said.
One woman came every night to finish her master's thesis, Rubenstein said. When the last word was written in the coffee house, an announcement was made and the room cheered. Now she's teaching in Boston, Rubenstein said proudly, as if the coffee house were somehow responsible. "People who leave write to us," she said.
There's a dictionary on the counter to solve Scrabble disputes. When time allows, the owners still play or kibitz. Puca helped one player come from behind to win with quid on a triple word score.
There is a $2.50 minimum order.
Besides various hot and cold coffees and beverages, Gasoline Alley serves salads, sandwiches, quiche and desserts--including sugar-free pie.
Gasoline Alley, 7219 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 937-5177. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 a.m.; Sunday, noon to midnight. Poetry reading at 3 p.m.