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CITYSCAPES / SHAWN HUBLER

Gorky's Goes Way of Soviet Union: It's History

May 10, 1993|SHAWN HUBLER

The "foodski, funski and brewski" are gone-ski. Gorky's is kaput.

Twelve years after downtown's best-known bohemian hangout opened in the name of cheap java for the working class, Gorky's Cafe and Russian Brewery has quietly shut down, leaving nothing but the coffeepot and a bill for back rent.

"So Long, L.A.," reads the sign on the window.

"They done cleared out," nodded a panhandler in a nearby cardboard box.

"Yes, they're basically out of business," confirmed Glenn Rosten, a consultant to the owner, who could not be reached.

"It's a battle they kept fighting but just couldn't win."

*

Somewhere in the story behind Gorky's final days is a parable for our times--a story of '60s idealism and '80s capitalism and the challenge of selling borscht and beer on Skid Row.

The all-night cafeteria started out serving cheap food to starving artists in 1981, a sort of peoples' eatery named for the Russian father of social realism. Ten years later, it was being run by a 45-year-old restaurateur who had decked it out with neon and a micro-brewery and security guards to keep the homeless at bay.

By 1992, Gorky's was bankrupt, investors were running the place and the crowds of bohemians were long gone. Boosters blamed the recession, but critics complained that Gorky's had sold its proletarian soul.

Some traced the restaurant's downfall to 1985, when businessman Fred Powers bought it from its founder, Judith Markoff, a former high school librarian.

Markoff's restaurant was a place of bottomless coffee mugs and art magazines, where bearded guys talked philosophy at long communal tables and $5 would buy all the stuffed cabbage you could stand. Under Powers, Gorky's went trendy, with poetry readings and Ethiopian reggae bands and smaller portions on each plate. In one room, a 331-gallon brewery churned out designer beer.

"When it originally started out, it was truly an artists' hangout and truly a bohemian cafe," said Franc Novak, a downtown artist who made headlines two years ago when he brought 25 homeless dinner guests into the restaurant only to get booted out.

"But then when Fred Powers bought it and tried to Disneyland the place into this image of a bohemian cafe, well, it just wasn't really true anymore."

But Powers' defenders--Powers could not be reached for comment--blame a poor economy and bad press.

"People loved the idea of Gorky's, but when you talked to them about going downtown, they went: 'Oooh,' " Rosten said. "Costs were going up. The economy was going down. Every employee who left for any reason would file a workman's comp claim. We went to a number of city agencies, and everyone said: 'Oh, we want to help Gorky's,' but nobody came through--they all had programs, but none where we fit. "

*

Powers "changed the music, changed the art, lowered the prices on the menu--tried all sorts of things" to bring back the eclectic throngs that once packed the wooden booths and tables at 536 E. 8th St.

But nothing worked. By the '90s, most artists had been priced out of the downtown lofts; most yuppies had moved to the 'burbs. The Generation X types were still around, but they were mostly unemployed and couldn't afford to eat out. The only regulars left were the street people outside.

Powers was forced to cut the restaurant's 24-hour-a-day schedule. Then he shut the Hollywood Gorky's he had opened in 1988. News of that closure led the few remaining repeat customers to believe that the downtown Gorky's had shut down too, Rosten said. Business became slower still.

By 1992, according to court records, Gorky's owed nearly $1 million to its creditors--including $12,000 in back rent--but had only about $148,000 in assets. Powers sought protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, and when the bank foreclosed, a patron, Candace Choi of La Crescenta, bought the equipment and took over the restaurant.

From then on, even fans of Gorky's now say, it was only a matter of time.

By April 23, Rosten said, it was clear that the restaurant was no longer a going concern. A live band, heavily advertised, had drawn only a handful of people. As the owner closed up shop that night, he said, she decided that enough was enough.

"The decision wasn't made until pretty much the last minute," Rosten added. Indeed, plenty of people were surprised.

Three weeks after the closure, homeless people were still hanging around the locked and barred doorway, hoping for handouts from customers who showed up only to walk away shaking their heads in puzzlement.

One city worker said he found out about the closure only last week, when he went for a cup of coffee.

And Leon Frieden, the landlord, said he was probably most surprised of all because the owner never told him that Gorky's was closing. "They stiffed us plenty," Frieden fumed.

But for all the hopes that downtown boosters had once pinned on Gorky's, city officials reacted to news of the closure with only muted grief.

"It was a real fixture downtown, a cultural institution, a place where people had drinks after the theater, but "I don't think it means the end of downtown," said Adolfo V. Nodal, general manager of the city Cultural Affairs Department.

And onetime competitors say they are sorry but not surprised--they were well aware that the cafe had fallen on hard times.

"Gorky's closing? Oh, well," shrugged Bob Myung, owner and manager of the Central City Cafe.

"Hey! More customers for me."

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