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Urban Moment

Where Some People Know Your Name

Regulars are getting harder to spot at evolving landmark bar-restaurant. Urban Moment

April 13, 2001|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The suit sitting on the corner bar stool, nursing a red wine near the carny-style popcorn machine, just looks like a regular--but he's not.

In this neighborhood, he's what you'd call an intermittent.

There are real regulars, to be sure, but they don't come quite this late in the evening, or quite this late in the week, for that matter.

At a glance, this is a place that would, it seems, play host to regulars--and would feature a bartender who knows that, and them.

But change happens--it's bound to.

Tonight at Les Freres Taix--at Sunset near Alvarado--this bartender stacks them up: premium half-bottles of Pinot Noir and Heinekens, stiff Belvedere martinis and blushing Cosmopolitans.

He may or may not be measuring change by the finger-full of gin or vodka, but night by night he's been overseeing a steady work-in-progress.

His is not a fancy bar of zinc or swirled marble. The wood that wraps around it brings to mind the tacky, shellac-sheen of your fourth-grade teacher's desk.

But it is one of those dark places you melt into--like the velvet of a box--as it transports you to another world.

There are a few other intermittents scattered about. Three men in shirt sleeves, buttons straining across the midsection, shout union business. They're ranged in squat upholstered chairs with casters. A solo diner, back against the wallpaper, at a low table in a far corner, lingers over a plate of complimentary chicken wings and a highball glass filled with ice, a twist and a clear spirit, sit mesmerized by the latest car chase. There is school district business, and county courtroom drama as salty as the kernels left at the bottom of the popcorn machine.

This lounge, adjacent to the restaurant that used to serve as Easter or Mother's Day overflow--for families with kids too cranky to wait for space in one of the dining rooms--little girls in white lace stockings, now a maze of runs; little boys with crushed boutonnieres who'd lost their ties hours ago.

These were the decades before the Camel Reds and a Lotto machine occupied space behind the bar with the sloe gin and swan-neck Galliano bottles.

Yet, everybody looks familiar here, beneath the white, hammered-tin ceilings and the dim glow of the dusty chandeliers. And the scent--vaguely meat and poultry, butter and must--that slips into all the in-between places separating memory from present.

This relic of a restaurant, 60-plus years in the business--30 of them right here, stretched out at this odd perch at Sunset and Park--has served crusty sourdough and vegetable soup out of workhorse stainless-steel bowls to generations of L.A. families. It is a dinosaur-cum-chameleon. Too many blocks east of the action to be glamorous, but few enough blocks from Dodger Stadium, with its fanciful signage and an always-a-tangle car park to remain a curiosity.

Nowadays, Taix--("Say Tex!" more fanciful signage implores)--means a quick dinner for those who have squatted on high ground along back passes of Echo Park or Silver Lake, who drop down from the hills to enjoy their wine course and crudites in the back dining room shadows, under the careful gaze of a French-fluent waiter whose gnarled hands and labored gait make him look as if he was once a boxer.

That's just it. It's a city of many lives and second acts.

And maybe that's why no one could quite tell you when the girls with the pitch-black hair and vintage housecoats and rhinestones began to bring their friends. When union talk was dimmed by talk of Beck and Spaceland. When regulars became intermittents. And intermittents, well, regulars.

But that's how neighborhoods change. Not in a blink--but rather in a slow merge. And it's seldom you can catch it mid-act.

As the census unscrolls its results--in tracts and numbers and filigree conjecture--what becomes clear is that many of us are not thinking so much about "how we coexist"--we just do. Awkwardly. Haphazardly. Neighborhoods evolve. Devolve. Bloom.

And here, like a hothouse, it happens every night.

So if you're not paying close attention, when you turn your head, the men in the too-small short-sleeve shirts will vanish--replaced by a blond with rag doll pigtails and orange vinyl pants and her friends in Skechers and cargo shorts. The union shop talk turns to band gossip and drum-and-bass sides and trip-hop. That's about the time that the guitar cases lean against the bar and the mike telescopes up and it's "Testing, one two, one two . . . ."

About the same time the men with the silver hair and the navy tams with white pompoms begin to cluster out in the parking lot. Their laughter carries in the crisp air. The stadium lights glow just above them. "We're the Jesters," says one, car check receipt in hand, face ablaze above the huge purple bow tie at his collar. "We're all about fun . . . well, that's our motto. Remember it: 'Mirth is king.' "

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