Talk to people about the Hotel Cafe and the same themes recur: honest, intimate, artist-friendly and the '70s. The venue, presently among L.A.'s hottest spots for singer-songwriters, indeed prides itself on being a throwback, and not just musically.
Like L.A.'s other hallowed homes for troubadours -- McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and Largo on Fairfax (both of which are still going strong in their own right) -- the Hotel Cafe, located off an inauspicious alley on Hollywood's burgeoning Cahuenga Boulevard strip, is creating an extended family.
"I think it's all just very symbiotic," co-owner Marko Shafer says of the Hotel Cafe's relationships with its artists. "We help them, they help us and eventually together we blossom into something that hasn't happened in a while ... since the '70s, when music was honest."
And after almost four years, the bloom shows no signs of fading. In fact, the venue is growing to include the recently acquired space next door. Co-owner Maximillian Mamikunian estimates the expansion will take six months.
It might be a case of a household outgrowing its home, but more square footage is not likely to make the regulars feel any less close.
"It feels like a family here," said singer-songwriter Kat Parsons, who has played the Hotel about 20 times. "All the people who work here know one another and have a friendship. It's very much of a community feel."
That bond extends to the artists. On a recent Saturday night, Chris "C. Duck" Anderson and Nate Richert held a CD release party for their album "Tone Control." Among those stopping by to either sit in or wish the duo well were regular performers such as Jim Bianco and Joe Purdy. After finishing her set, Parsons stood with the crowd, lending her support to Richert and Anderson.
Even if Parsons hadn't been playing, she probably would have been there anyway -- as would Richert and Anderson, who said they come by the venue at least once a week. Purdy, who gives partial credit to the Hotel for having recently earned a deal with Warner/Chappell publishing, said Shafer and Mamikunian have created a home for the artists. "All the artists come and hang out with them when they're not playing because they have such great relationships with everyone," Purdy said. "They've become some of our best friends."
The narrow, cozy room, with its high ceiling and dim lights, seems to command a certain respect for the music being played there. And if the room doesn't, the staff does -- patrons who converse during performances are likely to be politely shushed.
Mamikunian, 27, plays the role of host well. The night of the Richert-Anderson soiree, the co-owner stationed himself near the back of the room. Seated at one of the room's five elevated bar tables that runs along the narrow hallway linking the front and back of the club (there are also six dinner tables just in front of the stage), he greeted all the musicians as they came in. Impressively, he not only knew everyone's name and the names of their partners, but he could rattle off at the drop of a hat their full list of credits -- a six degrees of the Hotel Cafe musicians. For instance, Brad Gordon, who was jamming with Richert and Anderson that night, regularly played with Bianco and had played with Sylvie Lewis and Jesca Hoop.
"We take pride in the friendships and the exchanging of ideas" between musicians, Mamikunian said.
Shafer helps foster that creativity through the booking, often pairing acts that might not seem obvious. "I try my best to pair up artists that can share a fan base, exchange crowds, one open for the other etc., then draw," he said. However, he is modestly shortchanging his own contributions to the Hotel's eclectic spirit. On the night of Richert and Anderson's CD release party, the show was opened by the soulful grooves of Nayo, then Parsons' both poppy and jazzy tunes, followed by Richert and Anderson, who kicked off their set with a track that featured both banjo and a fiddle. In between sets, the house music was jazz, a homage to the club's early days as a jazz venue and Mamikunian's background as a jazz singer.
The co-owners' love for music is obvious when they talk about records from Tony Bennett to Broken Social Scene, not to mention the recently released debut Hotel Cafe compilation album -- featuring artists such as Hoop and Hotel stalwart Gary Jules, who's played the venue most, having done an eight-month, once-a-week residency during the club's infancy.
Mamikunian jokingly said of the CD, "We think you're going to like at least 90% of the rest of the album. We tried to make it really crazy and eclectic. If everyone likes every song, they're pretty much crazy."
The Hotel Cafe has made that sense of adventure a theme. "I want people to get really excited about new music," he said. "To be like, 'I've heard one person that I really like. I feel like I've stumbled upon them. I want to stumble upon somebody else too.' "
Steve Baltin can be reached at email@example.com.
Where: 1623 1/2 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
When: Nightly from 7 p.m.
Info: (323) 461-2040 or www.hotelcafe.com