The new Ernest Hemingway-themed bar in Hollywood called Hemingway's… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
It's past midnight on a recent Friday night in Hollywood and Johnny Zander, owner of a new bar and lounge named Hemingway's, is slightly agitated. He's concerned that his new place, which is themed around writer Ernest Hemingway, is too crowded.
Earlier in the evening, Teen Vogue's Young Hollywood Party had decided to use Hemingway's as the unofficial gathering place for an after-party and, in keeping with the de rigueur customs of a post-"Hills" lifestyle, its organizers tweeted about it.
Now, with last call a mere second-hand's sweep around the clock dial away, Hemingway's is packed hip-to-hip with tall, wasp-waisted young women with fine bone structure and skirts the size of pocket squares. Attending to them are genetically superior men with thick hair and eyes like frosted marbles.
They sway to the loud indie rock that a DJ cranks through his Mac and sip mixed drinks with names such as the Sun Also Rises and A Movable Feast.
"It's too loud in here," says Zander, a former model himself. He was discovered on the street at age 22 and modeled extensively for a number of high-profile fashion houses. He even lived for a time in Paris, modeling Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel collection.
It was while living alone in Paris that Zander discovered what many young men before him had already discovered: That Ernest Hemingway, far from being just a writer, represents a culture that is at once manly, intellectual and hard-drinking. Watering holes across the globe have made a reputation by once being a regular stop for Hemingway, including Harry's New York Bar in Paris. So, naming a bar after Hemingway, even one in a modern Los Angeles filled with models and iPhones, is somehow still a fitting tribute to Papa's legacy.
But Zander earnestly asserts that for him, the bar is more than just a tribute. When Zander lived in New York City, he frequented Chumley's, a well-known hang popular with literary lions including John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Allen Ginsberg and even Hemingway himself. It was a salon of sorts, and Zander wanted to create a similar feeling with Hemingway's.
"I want people to hear themselves talk," he says. " … I want people to be comfortable, to relax."
Zander is not the only Hollywood nightlife player who is chasing the Holy Grail of the modern-day salon. When SBE and Brent Bolthouse opened the Art Nouveau hotspot Foxtail more than two years ago, SBE's Restaurant and Nightlife Group President Kevin Stuessi compared it to "a new Brown Derby for a new generation." However, Foxtail has since gone the way of boot-cut jeans, closing down just a little over a year after it opened.
More recently, the duo of Brian Toll and John Terzian have been trying to revive a sense of social networking among like-minded artists and entertainment heavy-hitters at their clubs h.wood and Las Palmas, both of which are still going strong. However, where Toll and Terzian say they bring in the right people by keeping one of the strictest door policies in town, Zander plans to be a bit more democratic: He's taking reservations after 9 p.m.
Zander also concedes that he's not sure a scene like the one that unfolded at Chumley's is still possible to create in the age of Facebook.
Film director John Christopher Pina says he enjoyed Hemingway's, adding, "The level of the music was perfect and you could really have a conversation. Also, there's a nice foyer out front that is even more relaxed. The effect was that everyone there seemed to feel equal."
Zander is no newbie to the hospitality business: His aunt and uncle first opened the French Laundry in Napa, Calif., and his childhood memories are stuffed with images of his grandfather cooking elaborate meals for dozens of garrulous family members.
After trying his hand at acting and deeming it not his thing, Zander teamed up with a friend, Amanda Scheer-Demme, to re-imagine the Tropicana Bar and Teddy's at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Those venues became such sensations that they ultimately fell victim to their own success — they were just too hard to get into.
From there, Zander opened the equally elite hot spot Green Door with Chris Breed, a venture that ultimately went sour for Zander, who is currently involved in litigation with his former partners over proceeds from the club.
That wrangling has dragged on for two years now, and Zander decided to dust himself off and start over, this time with partners Elie Samaha (the Roxbury, Shelter, the Cabana Club, Pig 'N Whistle) and film producer Donald Kushner ("Tron," "Monster").