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1933 Group's Bobby Green expands his bar art with Sassafras

Sassafras is set to open next month in Hollywood; its ambitious Southern home re-creation could be a 1933 Group hit (like Bigfoot Lodge) or not (like Stinkers).

June 22, 2012|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • Bobby Green of the 1933 Group sits inside La Cuevita, his new Highland Park tequila and mezcal bar.
Bobby Green of the 1933 Group sits inside La Cuevita, his new Highland Park… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Bobby Green feels most at home sitting at a bar. Not at a table in a bar, but at the bar itself — a cold beer or cocktail in his hand. Bars put him in a sentimental mood, which is why his night life company 1933 Group owns so many of them. With partners Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, Green runs six popular watering holes, including the Bigfoot Lodge and Thirsty Crow, and is poised to open a seventh — his biggest project yet — next month in Hollywood.

Called Sassafras, the 3,500-square-foot bar was designed by Green (who is the face of the 1933 Group) to resemble a home in the South. Actually, it doesn't just resemble a Southern home — it is a Southern home. Green dismantled a mossy, Gothic-looking house from Savannah, Ga., and rebuilt it inside the bar. You can see three sides of the house when you enter Sassafras, and you can actually walk inside and make yourself at home.

If this sounds elaborate, that's because it is. Green, 41, is L.A.'s theme bar king. He's known for crafting imaginative spaces that take patrons outside of themselves and Southern California. A fantastical log cabin, in the case of the Bigfoot Lodge, or a Depression-era bar in the case of the Thirsty Crow. But with Sassafras, Green is taking his flair for set-piece creation to a whole new level. Originally the location of a 1920s speak-easy called the Who's Who's It, Sassafras is located on Vine Street, south of Fountain Avenue, and presents a wealth of cutting-edge design options.

"We're putting on our big boy britches and going to work," jokes Green, sipping a Corona inside his newest bar, La Cuevita, in Highland Park, which looks like a fancy Mexican grotto, features an extensive list of tequila and mescal, and opened earlier this month. "We're not just opening cool little bars in emerging neighborhoods anymore."

Although after he opens Sassafras, which will traffic in barrel-aged cocktails, Southern hospitality and free hard-boiled eggs, Green will venture into the decidedly emerging neighborhood of North Hollywood. 1933 has acquired a barrel-shaped bar that was opened in 1941 as the Idle Hour before being purchased by a Flamenco dancer and turned into La Cana restaurant. Green plans to dust it off and return it to its 1940s glory and its original name — and open it as his first restaurant.

A lover of kitsch with a tendency to take his design schemes to the extreme, Green learned restraint after his over-the-top concept for a bar called Stinkers, which featured skunks that blew steam out of their rears and wore trucker hats drinking Schlitz, was not received very kindly. The bar lasted a year before he closed it down and turned it into the much more demure and successful Thirsty Crow.

"That was a good lesson," says Green. "I did something totally ridiculous because I wanted to, but people just hated it. They hated it so bad, even if they spent four nights a week there. I had to learn to edit myself."

Born in Oklahoma, Green moved with his mother and sister to L.A. at the age of 10. His mother was hoping to make him a child star but his tastes veered toward visual arts and design and he set his sights on attending Art Center in Pasadena before chucking the idea of college in favor of opening a bohemian coffee shop in West L.A. in 1989. He opened the Bigfoot Lodge in 1999 after reeling in Komarov and Liberman as investors with an arty little booklet he made showing his clever idea for the place, which he says was inspired in part by the David Lynch cult TV show"Twin Peaks" and childhood ski trips.

"I hand-mailed 200 invites to the opening back when you hand-mailed things," says Green, who had lots of scenester-y connections thanks to his coffee shop days. "And 500 people showed up, and that was it."

At the time, Bigfoot Lodge, which is in a bustling part of Atwater Village, was considered to be in the boonies. The same was true of the bar that now houses La Cuevita, which Green originally called by its English name, Little Cave. Today Highland Park is a fast-changing neighborhood — its heavily Latino population increasingly salted with hip white musicians and artists, the kind who can afford a $10 glass of wine at the neighborhood's new beer-and-wine bar, the Hermosillo, a $13 burger at the York or a $12 Mole Manhattan at La Cuevita.

However, Green says he doesn't aim to change the neighborhoods where he opens bars. He just wants to enhance them and give residents a comfortable place to escape.

"This is my art form and creative expression," says Green. "I genuinely care if people like it."

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