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Barney's Beanery rocks on at 90

The gritty West Hollywood restaurant has been a central character in L.A.'s movie, art and music scenes.

October 21, 2010|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times

Not long after that, Barney's became known as a rock 'n' roll roadhouse — a reputation that remains with it to this day.

"It reflected the feelings people had about freedom and society and our culture at the time," says Jeff Jampol, manager of the Doors and the Joplin estate. "If you wanted to hang out, you knew that the only other place that had that kind of cultural weight and import at that time was the Troubadour."

This period strikes many a modern mind as odd. Because while the counterculture revolution was happening inside the ragged restaurant with its scratched wooden tables, garish multicolored booths, filthy pool tables, newspaper menus and aged black-and-white photos, the restaurant's owner was openly discriminating against gays.

In the 1940s, Anthony had put up a sign that read "Fagots Stay Out" (sic). The sign remained under the ownership of Irwin Held, who bought the bar when Anthony died in 1968. In West Hollywood, which had long attracted a gay community, the sign was unforgivably offensive.

"We started picketing the restaurant in 1970, and on March 12, he said he would take the sign down, but then he put up more signs and had matchbooks [with those words on it] made," remembers Rev. Troy Perry, who lived in West Hollywood and founded the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church in 1968.

When West Hollywood was incorporated as a city in November of 1984, one of the first things the new government did was pass an anti-discrimination ordinance. The popular story goes that "they actually adjourned the meeting and walked down to Barney's and took the sign down," says John J. Duran, mayor pro tem of West Hollywood. "And it was handed to Valerie Terrigno, the first mayor of West Hollywood." Terrigno was one of the first lesbian mayors of an incorporated municipality in the U.S.

In reality, the city had to threaten Held with a $500-a-day fine before he reluctantly agreed to let Terrigno and another council member remove the sign in January 1985.

"I think in some ways, Barney's inspired the city of West Hollywood to form because they wanted to get that sign down," says current co-owner Houston, who in 2005 invited Perry to Barney's to offer a public apology for the restaurant's legacy.

"I went in and it was so cute, I even had their world-famous chili," Perry says. "It was an amazing story as he and I sat there and talked about how it was a new day for Barney's Beanery."

Today, in keeping with its nearly centenarian status, the restaurant continues to generate new stories. This year, it experienced a fresh burst of national interest when, during the NBA play-offs, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel invited a longtime Barney's busboy, Ricardo Reyes, to compete in Pop-a-Shot competitions with NBA stars including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom Reyes beat handily. (Pop-a-Shots are mini-basketball game machines like the ones at Barney's.)

"It transcends just funny, it's a real-life 'Rocky' kind of thing — this little guy who's a busboy defeating some of the best players in the world," says Will Burke, the "Jimmy Kimmel Live" writer who came up with the idea after a friend and Barney's regular tipped him off to Reyes' skills. "I think it would have been a lot lamer if Ricardo had been a busboy at Hooters or some lame chain like that, but Barney's is such an important part of L.A. culture."

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