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A barfly on the wall of L.A. history

In Koreatown, Taylor's, Frank 'n Hank and HMS Bounty still serve up the best beef and Bukowski-style dive bars in the city.

November 29, 2013|Chris Erskine
  • Frank 'n Hank, a Koreatown watering hole, includes a pool table and some raw and honest history.
Frank 'n Hank, a Koreatown watering hole, includes a pool table and… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

The steakhouse may be America's greatest single achievement. Sure, there's that Constitution everyone's so impressed with, and baseball and Elizabeth Banks. But if you had to narrow it down to one thing, one crowning glorious creation that captures the nation's spirit and pastoral roots, it's probably a red-boothed steakhouse, where the waitresses are as old as the best wines, and platters of beef are presented presidentially.

In a good steakhouse, every man feels part king, part cowboy.

Beef is like brandy — I'm not 100% sure of all that's in it, only that it pleases the tongue in unique and magnificent ways. Don't drink as much red meat as I used to, but when I do (as that weirdo faux millionaire says) I prefer prime rib medium rare, so gloriously half-cooked that the juices pool around the potatoes.

Red booths, red meat, red alert. Shoot me, I love steakhouses so much, the last bastions of a raucous good time.

One of the best places to grab a steak is in Koreatown, of course. Of course, because, like so much of Los Angeles, it makes no sense at all. As with Langer's on the lip of buzzy MacArthur Park, Taylor's Steak House is a misfit yet a landmark.

Taylor's dates to the '50s, which is itself a huge endorsement. Bookies used to hang out here, some probably still do. That it took 30 minutes for us to get a table at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday gives you some sense of how popular the old place remains.

This is one of the satisfactions of K-town. We came down here to hang out at Charles Bukowski's old bar, Frank 'n Hank, a dive on Western. Dive bars may be America's second-most glorious achievement, at least that's what Bukowski would say. He was honest and authentic and a total mess. But he was our total mess — one of L.A.'s most renowned literary voices.

Whether Bukowski actually drank here has never been completely established, though he drank pretty much everywhere. That he might've wandered into this pocket-sized joint at some point is totally believable. I feel his ornery, barfly spirit. And I can hear again his throaty rasp, all hung over, like wasps on a sugaring maple.

"If you're losing your soul and you know it, then you've still got a soul left to lose," Bukowski once growled.

Not exactly Oprah, this guy. More the anti-Oprah, which probably speaks to his success.

The only guiding principle behind tonight's Koreatown pub crawl is that every watering hole have a juke box, preferably with some Doors on it.

Notice how bars no longer have juke boxes? That is one more reason to support dive bars, which my buddies and I throw our money at occasionally, preserving these sticky old relics. One guy, Brightly, actually writes it off on his taxes.

The good dive bars are as real and raw as a Bukowski poem. In this land of veneers, you grow to appreciate that sort of honesty.

Now, to walk along Wilshire is to feel like you're overseas, for the obvious Asian influences. There's a golf range on Wilshire, for example, where you hit off the sixth floor, busy all night — whack, whack, whooooosh.

Like ice cubes in a cocktail glass, a well-clinked golf ball is a happy sound. Next time you're in Koreatown, be sure to take your sticks.

Tonight, it is drizzling, the kind of weepy night Bukowski would've liked. The streets look freshly varnished. Los Angeles could use a few more shimmering nights like this. When you enter a festive saloon on a damp November night, it's like climbing back into the womb.

(Yes, I had quite a mom.)

HMS Bounty bar is loud and welcoming to wet and wandering strangers like us. We order a round of drinks — there are six of us now, maybe eight — and the damage comes to around four bucks. Well, not quite four bucks. But close. Might move in here.

Because amid its many modern nightspots, seems that Koreatown holds on and supports these lifelines to the past. L.A. has more history than it deserves, despite the soulless developers who have pillaged the place.

Thanks go to the customers, in places like Taylor's and the HMS Bounty, who prefer these throwbacks over the next migraine-inducing hot spot.

Sure, it's sweet to live in a city that thinks ahead. It's even sweeter, in these frantic times, to raise a glass to L.A.'s rich and romantic roots.

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