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Cover Story : Lowdown on the High Life : The Valley boasts its share of swanky joints with crooners, cocktails and round booths.

June 09, 1995|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enough about the Dresden Room already.

Yes, yes--this cocktail lounge is swanky and sophisticated. Marty and Elayne Roberts can croon. But have you been in there on a Friday night, packed in with every agent's assistant in the Basin? It's impossible to be fabulous when you're worried about spilling your martini.

There has to be a lounge . . . someplace that swings . . . someplace sophisticated . . . someplace in the 818 area code.

I scour the L.A. Weekly. I cruise record stores and coffeehouses looking for the latest edition of Lounge--a local magazine dedicated to the scene. No dice.

I track down Lounge editor Sam Wick, who swears that he distributed 10,000 copies of the last bimonthly edition. He doesn't mean to be discouraging, he says, but the best, most authentic lounges are in the San Gabriel Valley along historic Route 66.

Foothill Boulevard better than Ventura Boulevard? Never.

*

Lounge has been media-dissected as a reaction to grunge and rap, a return to suburban cool. As a musical genre it incorporates everything from crooning vocal standards to instrumental exotica. But truly, lounge is a scene. It's a dark, smoky room filled with swingers, preferably with a piano bar or small stage. It's a well-mixed cocktail, sipped.

In Los Feliz, the Dresden Room waited 30-odd years for cocktail lounges and their brand of entertainment to come back in style. When it finally did, others--the Lava Lounge, Three of Clubs--sprang up locally to meet the youthful craving for martinis and Sinatra-esque entertainment. The wave spread east, and swanky cocktail joints now cater to young people in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

For the true aficionados--the people who have been playing Henry Mancini tunes on their turntable in secret for years--the best lounge is an undiscovered one.

"It has to do with the ambience, with the crowd," says Wick. "I like the older places, the ones that opened right after the World War II era."

The San Fernando Valley used to be full of them--places with such names as the Fireside Inn, Bob's Steakhouse and the Hangman's Tree. They lined Ventura Boulevard from Sherman Oaks to Woodland Hills and catered to suburbanites and occasional TV stars. Some closed. Some turned into chain restaurants.

But are there any left?

Start with the Tonga Hut, Wick says, and let him know what else is out there. Thomas Guide in hand, I set out for North Hollywood.

You can't miss the Tonga Hut. Just keep your eye out for the Easter Island-style head carved into wood by the front door.

Named "Dive Bar of the Month" by Lounge magazine in November, this place somehow blends Tiki decor with neighborhood bar atmosphere. Patrons like Chuck the plumber may seem incongruous with the three-tier Polynesian fountain trickling behind the bar. The bartender pours more beers than he mixes Tonga Punch.

The Tonga Hut gets lounge points for dim lighting and Tiki-print cocktail napkins, but loses them for the electronic dart machines and Santana on the jukebox. Since there's no live music, bring lots of quarters. Cool round booths? Yes. Color: olive green.

*

Acting on a tip from a Times' jazz writer, I head even further east to Burbank.

Don't trust your Yellow Pages. J.P.'s Restaurant and Lounge moved about six months ago from Magnolia Boulevard to Hollywood Way.

As you enter, to the left is the restaurant, which is close enough to hear the music and has round booths (color: red). There are tables and bar seating closer to the musicians. On this particular night, my friend and I seem to be the only people who don't sing or play an instrument. A man at a nearby table pulls out a bass flute, and when the pianist calls out, " 'Kansas City'? Does anyone here know 'Kansas City'?" a man in a red V-neck steps up to the microphone.

The music keeps going until 1:30 or so, and it stays at that perfect volume where you can hear it and the person you're talking to.

After that first night, I'm convinced that there is hope for the Valley. I start optimistically calling places listed under "Cocktail Lounges" in the Yellow Pages. "Lounge music? What do you mean?" proprietors start asking me. Then, "Honey, we're a country and western bar." Finally: "We have a Led Zeppelin tribute band every Friday. . . ."

I stop this foolishness and go skulking back to Hollywood for my next lounge fix. I run into Joey Sehee, 33, who embodies suburban-ness with his receding blond hair and blue, fuzzy cardigan sweater. Valley lounges? Sure, he knows some and gives me a short list.

Not long ago, Sehee was performing on roller-blades under the name Joey Chezhee. (Like rappers, lounge scenesters adopt an alias.) He says he dropped that moniker because it undermined the seriousness of lounge entertainment. His show is now called "The Wonderful World of Joey."

"It's been tough convincing people that there's an artistic integrity to it," Sehee says. "No one knows how to entertain that way any more. For 30 years, no one was learning how to do it."

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