It’s a chain (of “gastropubs”) now, but the original Barney’s Beanery is in West Hollywood and was the only one for more than seven decades. I was in the area and wanted lunch, and it seemed like a good idea to go during the day instead of at night when it was so full of people I’d feel weird sitting alone in a booth taking pictures and writing in my notebook.
-Fantastically busy decorations, signs everywhere including on the ceiling, dozens of license plates over the bar, full-size motorcycles on the low walls separating sections, rainbow-striped booths, tables with collages of celebrity pics and newspaper clippings, something wonderful everywhere you look, lots of TVs hanging from the ceiling, hardwood floors and walls, a gaming area in the back with a Ms Pac-Man and air hockey and a basketball hoop game and some wooden game I can’t identify, and three pool tables. The atmosphere is almost indescribably marvelous, everything is jumbled and colorful and busy.
-The menu is printed like a newspaper. My understanding is that it used to be much, much bigger but they pared it down a few years ago. I’m just as glad; it is still plenty big and when faced with a really gigantic menu I tend to panic. I got the Barney’s sliders, without the “Barney Sauce” because that stuff always has mayonnaise. They came with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and pickles, and were shockingly delicious — can’t imagine how the sauce could have improved them. I’m so glad I outgrew the thing where I only wanted to have ketchup on my hamburgers.
-There’s a part of Barney’s Beanery history that is very ugly. For many years, a sign hung above the bar telling homosexuals to stay out, only using a slur for homosexuals. It was taken down first in the ’70s, after protests from the LGBT community, then put back up by a new owner who insisted it was “funny,” and part of the Beanery’s history, and then finally removed by city ordinance in the mid-’80s. I’d heard about the sign, and it was why I had never been to Barney’s Beanery before this.
I wasn’t going to write it up for the blog, either, but then I saw references to it a few different places during Pride, and realized a lot of members of the gay community ate there often. I figured I should do some research. I looked into it and learned that the people who own it now bought it long after the sign was taken down —so neither the person who put it up (after a raid, I’m told — cops used to do surprise raids on bars looking for “homosexual activity,” and arrest people and bust things up) nor the owner who kept it up until he was forced to take it down (he was going to be fined $500/day if he didn’t) profit from my patronage. From what I found when I was reading about it, the sign was not backed up by any actual policies; there were, it sounds like, plenty of gay customers all along — although enough of them certainly objected to the sign too be instrumental in it being removed. I found a blog that talked about how determined the new owner was to make it clear the old attitudes were over; hanging a rainbow flag during Pride and hosting lunches for disadvantaged gay youth. I decided that all this made it okay for me to eat at, and enjoy, Barney’s Beanery. While I was there I was pleased to see they don’t try to hide this part of their history; on one wall is a collage of newspaper clippings and pictures of people protesting outside to have the sign removed, and they talk about it on the website as well.
-Four women came in a little while after me, all wearing over-sized white halter tops and black leggings. They didn’t seem like they were in a dance troupe but what other explanation could there be?
-When I went into the bathroom, I felt overwhelmed at the knowledge that Jim Morrison had, really almost definitely, had sex here. It was the best bathroom I’d ever been in anyway, with tons of band posters, and mirrors framed in bottle caps, and graffiti. This is a bathroom that has seen things, is all. In the stall I chose there was a Sex Pistols poster AND a Buzzcocks poster.
-The bathroom had ceiling lamps made from bicycle tires. I’m not saying they’d work in every bathroom, but definitely most bathrooms in the world would be better if they had ceiling lamps made from bicycle tires.
-According to the website, the license plates over the bar are from people back in the ’30s and ’40s who moved to LA for a better life. I’m choosing to believe it is true. Sometimes, the license plates were given in exchange for a meal if someone was hungry and hadn’t gotten started on their better life just yet.
-Clara Bow used to hang out here, and Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable. Also, of course, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Sitting in my booth, I felt oddly close to all these old movie stars and rock stars, in a way that doesn’t make sense but still feels very real. It’s why I love these old places, I guess… It’s like proof that all those people really existed, all those things really happened.
-The TVs right near me had sports on, but one farther away — still in my line of sight — was playing Cartoon Network, which made the effect much more charming. Anyway, the sound was off, and the music playing was mostly ’80s stuff that I like.
-While doing research about the history of Barney’s I went through the LA Times archives and found a lot of old articles and display ads and mentions in gossip columns. I learned that in 1938, there was a “cocktail lounge” in which Jeanne Evans and Jerry O’Conner performed; that in 1940 Simon Simone and Edward Norris stopped in for big bowls of onion soup and, according to “Jimmi Fidler in Hollywood,” two packs of gum; and that in 1948 the actor Lawrence Tierney went to Barney’s and got in a fistfight with William Goldy whose name you probably recognize because he was Mickey Cohen’s bartender for a while.
-My waitress, a tall blonde who was very nice and attentive when it came to refilling my water glass, had on a black t-shirt that said “say no to drugs” with flowers all around. As near as I could tell, the uniform was jeans, a Barney’s half-apron, and whatever black t-shirt you felt like wearing that day.
-A newspaper clipping framed on the wall talks about ghosts haunting Barney’s. I do not believe in ghosts, but it’s easy to imagine them here. The place is soaked in history; knowing about all of the amazing people who’ve been here makes them seem like a tangible presence.
-I overheard a waitress telling a table of people near me that the large pizza was not “HUGE huge.” Isn’t it funny that we all know exactly what that means? Because really, it makes no sense, except it totally does.
-A group of people sat near me and immediately started showing each other some sort of YouTube videos at full volume. It would have been annoying as all get out, except they were laughing so hard, and so happily, that it became charming.
-“We Can Be Heroes” by David Bowie came on, and I started wondering if he’d ever hung out here, and then I realized that he almost definitely had, at some point, and I got kind of weepy thinking about it.
-There’s a plaque on the bar that says “Here sat Jim Morrison: Poet, Artist, Legend.” The plaque does not mention the time he stood on the bar and peed and was promptly thrown out. I went over to look at the plaque and the guys sitting around it were very grudging and annoyed about having to move their sunglasses. Whatever, you guys.
-A woman sitting near me called at least a dozen things “life-changing” in the space of about fifteen minutes. I mean, I guess most things are life-changing, even if only just very slightly.
– I read on the website that Janis Joplin’s favorite booth had been #34, and I wanted to ask the waitress which booth that was, but I was worried I’d sound like a silly tourist. Finally worked up the nerve, and so incredibly glad I did. She showed me the actual table top from Janis’ booth; it now hangs on the ceiling and arrow stickers point out where Janis carved her name into the wood. Then she showed me where the booth was — Janis sat against the back wall, where she could see the door (same as Mickey Cohen, according to the waiter at Cole’s). I asked the waitress what her own favorite things in the restaurant were, and she showed me a glass eye that someone bet in a pool game and then lost; the owner thought that was so funny he bought it off the winner and glued it to the ceiling. Then she showed me a part of the ceiling, towards the back of the restaurant, that had splatters of milkshake from when there’d been a milkshake prepping counter there in the ’70s and ’80s. So these were 30+-year-old milkshake splatters, left there I suppose for the same reason the eyeball was —because it was funny.
What I Ate: Sliders with all sorts of fixings but no sauce
What Sort of Ghost I’d Expect to Find if I Believed in Ghosts Which I do Not: A group of three. The first came to Hollywood during the depression. She was hoping she could become a star and send money home to her family, but it turned out to be harder than she had thought. She came into Barney’s Beanery for a meal, and the owner noticed how hungrily she was eating her soup, and offered her a job as a waitress. She loved getting to meet her favorite movie stars, loved how happy they looked when they came in. Seeing them made her happy, and being happy made her beauty shine like a beacon, and it wasn’t long before a producer told her his movie couldn’t be made without her in it.
The second had lived in the Valley all her life, and she never would have dared come into Hollywood, or to this place, if she hadn’t loved the Rock Star so much. She’d done so many things because she loved him: she’d dyed her hair blonde because he liked blondes; she’d forced herself to not be so shy, so she could talk to people about him; she’d even learned to play guitar so she could play his songs and feel closer to him. And now she’d started coming to Barney’s Beanery every night she could sneak out, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of him. That was where she heard the other girls, the ones she wouldn’t have had the nerve to speak to a year earlier, talking about how they needed a guitarist for their band. She took a deep breath, thought of him, and said, “I can play guitar.” She did meet him, eventually, but by then she was a star in her own right.
The last of them first came to Barney’s in the ’70s. He saw the sign over the bar and felt sick. He wondered why his friends had brought him here. The guy next to him saw his face, and said “I don’t like it much either. Want to leave?” And then the guy smiled, and it was like the sun had come indoors. So they left, but they were back the day the sign came down. It became their favorite place, though really anyplace he saw that smile was his favorite place, even when he could see the smile whenever he wanted. And when the smile went out, forever, Barney’s was the only place he wanted to go.
These ghosts sit together, and they look at the people, and they remember.
8447 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069