Pity the strip-mall bar. Far too often, lounges in Southern California strip malls lapse into liverishness, cultivating a vibe that's more about locals bingeing than meeting cool new friends. And while a number of notable new restaurants have flourished in mini-malls in and around Los Angeles lately, few bars have risen to the challenge.
Enter Craig Trager, who has all but made a career out of turning nondescript bars into hip L.A. destinations. "I'm the strip-mall king, I guess," he deadpanned inside his latest venture, El Bar, formerly the short-lived Bridge. Before that, it was the longtime home of the Casting Office.
Trager's Mexico-via-Spain-themed watering hole, which was scheduled to open Thursday night to the public after private parties earlier this week, is his third bar to open in a strip mall in the last two years. His last two, the Fifth in Valley Village and the Woods in Hollywood, also lighted up drab shopping stretches.
"People think strip malls are cheesy . . . but guess what? I've got people coming by [my bars] all day long, because strip malls serve everyone in the neighborhood. It's all about exposure."
If it's exposure Trager seeks, he has it in spades at his Universal City-adjacent El Bar. Located next to a Starbucks on a busy stretch of Cahuenga right near a 101 Freeway entrance, El Bar couldn't be better situated, despite parking shortcomings.
"All these people are trying to catch the 101, but when they see the traffic, they might want to come in here, catch a drink, eat some food, watch the news or the game instead of waiting two hours stuck [on the freeway]," Trager said between sips of a Don Julio Reposado.
In stark contrast with 3256 Cahuenga's most recent occupant, the short-lived Bridge (which attempted -- and failed at -- an under-the-radar, Hollywood-style run this year), El Bar is all but taunting commuters to drop in, with a massive blinking red neon sign atop Trager's new watering hole.
"The Bridge tried to be 'Hollywood cool' with dress codes, but they alienated the entire neighborhood," he said. "We're not gonna do that."
Instead, the 48-year-old intends to employ a simple strategy that has kept drinkers happy at his other bars, such as the Well, for years.
"Most of my bars tend to lean towards the masculine, so I wanted to do that again," he said. And while the design scheme at El Bar doesn't exactly reek of testosterone, there are macho reminders everywhere. Paintings of bare-chested women and matadors adorn the exposed-brick walls, candles smartly cut into the wall flicker with desire, iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling . . . but the bar's most distinctive design feature is decidedly Y chromosome: an honest-to-god bull's head right behind the mirrored bar.
"That's an actual bull from a bullfight," boasts Trager. "I bought it online from a taxidermist and had it shipped from El Paso."
If that doesn't scare off your female vegan friends, remind them that the tiny bar (capacity: fewer than 100) will also serve food from the pizza restaurant next door during happy hour.
Trager has had amazing success; bar receipts are level for him and his partners, despite a recession.
"People drink when they're happy or depressed," he said. "Business at my bars hasn't dropped at all. I got more hits when we had the strike. A lot of my customers are the grips and other workers on film sets."
More than anything else, El Bar evokes the sprit of 3rd Street's still popular El Carmen. But don't call El Bar a tequila bar. "I have an extensive tequila list, but we're not a tequila bar," Trager stresses. "We're doing our sangrias from scratch, and you've got to try our 'Latin Lover,' " he excitedly said Tuesday night.
So what is it, exactly, that makes Trager's bars so irresistible to the 25- to 35-year-old set? Fair prices, a kitsch value that doesn't take things too far, a good jukebox and a nice male-to-female ratio. Oh, yeah, and being in a strip mall.
Where: 3256 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Fridays, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Price: No cover
Contact: (323) 851-5111 or www.vintagebargroup.com