“Winston Churchill spent a lot of time in this place,” says Ramon Castenada, manager of the nautical-themed bar HMS Bounty (See map below). “Back then, in the ‘40s, it was called The Gay Room.” Ramon, who’s been working here for 53 years, pulls up a chair and pours me another drink.
“Lee Marvin used to sit here, “ he says, indicating our table. “He loved to drink neat vodka and smoke Pall Malls.” (I feel vaguely emasculated, sitting as I am with a glass of Chardonnay and a packet of peanuts.) “And of course, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were regulars,” he continues. “There was a lot of bad behavior back then. The lights were so low you couldn’t see a damn thing. People pretty much did what they wanted.”
In Koreatown — L.A.’s ultimate all-night destination — people continue to pretty much do what they want. A frenzy of cocktail lounges, karaoke bars, barbecue joints and speakeasies, it’s not a place for the faint-hearted—or the weak-livered. We shall see if I can live up to the legacy of Messrs. Marvin and Burton.
I have an hour or so to kill before I’m due to meet my fellow Brits Andrew and Katie. So I head over to Wi Spa, a 24-hour massage parlor a few blocks from HMS Bounty. As I lay face down on the bed, naked and already wine-groggy, I wonder if I’ll come to regret this decision. But it’s too late for misgivings: a septuagenarian Korean-American lady is already walking up and down my spine, cracking my errant vertebrae with her toes. I cry out in muffled agony, but she shows no mercy. For a woman of such advanced years, she has incredibly strong hands — not to mention feet — and she’s not about to go easy on a timid tourist like me. I leave Wi Spa sore but satisfied, park my car in an all-night lot, and steel myself for the hours to come.
Andrew and Katie meet me at Soot Bull Jeep, which has a reputation for knockout Baby Back Ribs. We are the restaurant’s least likely patrons: Katie is vegan, and neither Andrew nor I eat pork. But it doesn’t seem to matter — there’s a long list of dishes to try. Katie chooses glass noodles, while Andrew and I opt for marinated chicken and shrimp. Perhaps not what a macho leading man would have ordered, but everything is excellent.
At Soot Bull Jeep, guests cook their own meat on an open grill built into the table. Hopeless rookie that I am, I manage to cook my own hands in the process. Choking on a chile and beginning to cry, I grab for the nearest glass — only to find it’s full of sake.
I need to buck up; it’s not even 10 pm and I’m already feeling distinctly light-headed.
We spot The Wiltern, a fine-looking Art Deco music venue on the corner of Western and Wilshire Boulevard. Eighties band, Spandau Ballet are headlining. We walk swiftly past without looking back.
Next stop: La Descarga, a reservations-only Cuban dance club. There’s a strict dress code at this place, and Andrew and I are desperately tucking our shirts into our jeans as we approach a stern-looking bouncer with a chiseled jaw. “Did you guys book?” he’s asking, eyebrow raised. Luckily I’d made an online reservation earlier in the day. We nod enthusiastically as he ushers us (somewhat reluctantly) inside.
Climbing a rickety staircase up to a ramshackle office, we’re greeted by a smiling hostess dressed as a ‘20s flapper. She pulls back a velvet curtain and leads us through a closet into a cavernous room with a back-lit bar, a gigantic chandelier, and a rocking, four-piece Salsa band. We settle down with a few Ol’ Club Foots (whisky; amaretto; aqua vit; lemon juice; simple syrup) and spend a pleasant half-hour watching couples throw shapes in the gold-tinged gloom.
Heading next door to the cigar room, we order more drinks, inhale some very expensive-smelling smoke, and finally leave the club just before midnight. We make our way towards our next destination..
..The Prince This low-lit cocktail lounge has been open since the 1920s. Scenes from Mad Men, Prime Suspect and Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic, Chinatown were all filmed here. The Prince has an upscale Southern bordello feel, and it’s easy to imagine Jack Nicholson holding court in one of the red leather booths. We chuck back a dirty martini or three before heading over to the appropriately named Beer Belly for some late-night grub. After helping me devour a pile of deep-fried pop tarts, Andrew and Katie bow out gracefully and hail a cab.
Why didn’t someone tell me that gin and pop tarts don’t mix? There should be some sort of warning on the packet, I mutter to myself, as I head out the door of Beer Belly into the increasingly blurry, neon-lit night.
Dragging my feet up the street, I stumble — quite literally —upon a sign marked ‘Psychic Lynn.’ Excited to see what the future holds, I duck inside, dig around in my pocket for the required $10, and rest my booze-addled body on Lynn’s faux-leather sofa. I watch as she shuffles a pack of well-thumbed Tarot cards, and gazes into a decidedly grubby crystal ball. “You are very unhappy. Am I right?” she’s asking. When I respond by saying that I’m on top form this evening, she quickly changes tack. “You will have much success in the coming months. But I strongly advise that you do an energy cleanse. It’s $40.” I make a beeline for the door.
I decide to use what’s left of my energy (clean or unclean) at Café Brass Monkey, Koreatown’s most popular Karaoke dive. After much drunken deliberating, I opt for The Doors’ ‘Love Her Madly’ — but it turns out I’m too late to put in my song request. In retrospect, this is probably a very good thing; by now I can barely talk, much less sing.
A Russian redhead sets a high standard with a roaring rendition of ‘I Will Survive’. Then a man in a long leather coat and ghoulish make-up approaches the microphone. Introducing himself as ‘The Undertaker,’ he squints at the audience through silver contact lenses and takes a long swig of beer. “This is how we do things…Satan-style,” he sneers, before launching into a mind-bogglingly awful version of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’.
Lee Marvin wouldn’t have given up. He would have pounded another bottle of Stoli. He would’ve said something dry and poignant to the barman, just like Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen. He and Richard Burton would’ve carried Elizabeth Taylor out into the street on their manly shoulders, and hightailed it back to Liberace’s pad in a platinum-plated Ford Mustang with black leather interior. Me? I’ll have to make do with Uber.
I’m sorry, guys. I’m open to most new experiences — but Satanic Karaoke is not one of them. It’s been fun. It’s been real. But Koreatown has kicked my sorry English ass. It’s time I went to bed.