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Echo Park's Little Joy gives dive-bar fans a reason to rejoice

Comfy new booths, clean white walls and eight taps pouring craft beer are just some of the new features — not bad for a bar known for some 'heavy times.'

April 05, 2013|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • Billiard corner at the Little Joy Cocktail Lounge in Los Angeles.
Billiard corner at the Little Joy Cocktail Lounge in Los Angeles. (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Things have been done in the bathrooms of Little Joy that would make even Keith Richards' skin crawl. The Echo Park dive bar was also notorious for the amount of times drunk, scrappy rockers got beat up outside of it. (Nobody likes a drunk, scrappy rocker. Not even other drunk, scrappy rockers.) And for more than 40 years, Little Joy was home to them all as well as a completely bent assortment of neighborhood characters, bums and druggies.

In short, it was the Enabler's favorite dive for a couple of years. That was in the early to midaughts when a charismatic and technophobic manager named Joe McGraw ran the place as a sort of salon for lost artists who claimed Pabst Blue Ribbon and a paint-stripping variety of well whiskey as their only sources of nourishment.

Flash-forward 10 years, and the bar was purchased by a former neighborhood scrapper named Joaquin Reyna-Donaldson and his business partner, Don Andes. They closed it down and in short order reopened it this week fully changed. It is the type of bar that the people who engaged in unsavory dive-bar business 10 years ago would like to go to now that they are married and in their 30s.

The Enabler counts herself among them, sans the married part. So it was with some trepidation that she entered the remodeled bar on a recent Tuesday night. Gone are the dirty floors, the bad green paint, the relentless graffiti, the old scratched tables and the simultaneously comforting and disconcerting scents of mildew, bleach and a possibly overmatched toilet that define all good dives. In their place: cool, white walls, a vintage dark wood bar with a mirrored back that is covered in actual flowers, comfortable new booths, a turntable playing Lou Reed records, eight new taps pouring craft beer and a well lineup that includes Buffalo Trace bourbon.

"There were good times here, there were bad times here — heavy times," says Reyna-Donaldson. "We're just trying to be a little bit of a more high-quality neighborhood bar. We like the idea of a woman being able to come here and have a drink by herself."

He has a good point. The Enabler rarely drank alone at Little Joy back in the day unless she was in the mood to talk to a toothless man in a dirty Lakers jersey. And if change had to come — which it did (doesn't it always?) — the Enabler is glad that Reyna-Donaldson and Andes got ahold of the bar.

Reyna-Donaldson is an English major with a history minor who cut his teeth in the bar business at the Echo when it first opened. He knows the neighborhood inside out, and he knows his client base. The new Little Joy is a pleasant, stripped-down place that's easy to hang around in. It's still full of scrappy rockers and artists, including a man with a beard so lush and long that it could conceal, as the Enabler's friend pointed out, "a chicken sandwich." It's also angling for the neighborhood's Dodgers fan base with game day specials, and there's still a pool table that draws a lot of action.

Big-time restaurant and bar groups have been aiming to get ahold of Little Joy for years, says Reyna-Donaldson, but the owner, George Tabata, chose to sell to him because he liked his neighborhood connections and allegiance. Tabata owned the bar since 1964 and was tired. He wanted to retire and go to Bishop to fish.

The building itself was built in the 1920s. Thanks to the bits of historical evidence that Reyna-Donaldson unearthed during the renovation in the form of spare parts, receipts, old photos and beer cans, he has concluded that the bar was once an auto shop and then a drugstore. It was turned into a beer bar and finally a gay-friendly cocktail lounge in the 1960s.

"It was like an archaeological dig, we just kept peeling back layer after layer of history," says Reyna-Donaldson of the renovation, which included completely new bathrooms. "As we were pulling away old sheet rock we found different layers of graffiti from different decades."

Surely some of that had been written by the Enabler.

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

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