That Los Angeles’ historic King Eddy Saloon has survived over 100 years is notable. That it endured and catered to the likes of Charles Bukowski, all while sitting across the street from the notorious Skid Row in downtown L.A. is downright badass. But many feared gentrification would finally do the bar in especially when, in 2012, it was sold to the ACME Hospitality Group, the organization behind other downtown haunts like Library Bar and Beelman’s Pub. Fortunately, new owners cherished the bar’s history, only restoring the saloon and updating it to fit the changing tastes for craft beer and cocktails.
Jonny Valenti, co-owner of the ACME Hospitality, took over as bar historian from former manager Bill Roller, who had run the bar for over 30 year. After gaining control of the space, Valenti dug into Los Angeles Times archives to learn about the venue's storied history, all the while befriending its longtime barflies.
What is now King Eddy Saloon was born in 1906 as a watering hole for the then high-class King Edward Hotel on E 5th Street. During Prohibition, King Eddy opened a speakeasy in its basement while operating its upstairs as a piano store front. Repeal Day 1933 was its official christening as the King Eddy. And the bar maintained success until L.A.’s Red Car electric railway system died out. But King Eddy continued to serve through it all, from a decades-long neighborhood drug epidemic to today's invasion of mixologists. It’s the last of its kind near Skid Row. Below, Valenti shares stories from its 100 years in service.
Even though the bar’s motto is "Where nobody gives a shit about your name," who were some of its famous regulars? Charles Bukowski definitely went there, John Fante hung out and wrote about the place. Wrote about his experience there. Certainly because of that a lot of poets, society people, or people that are intellectuals wanted to make a stop on the tour there. Actors and writers, Kiefer Sutherland has been there a million times. It’s one of those places, at least even before we took it over, a famous person can come in and have a drink and the old crowd wouldn’t even give a damn who they were or know who they were. So it was that kind of place.
Bukowski has always been touted as one of its more well-known patrons. But there are conflicting reports, including from historical bus tour company Esotouric, about whether he really did hang out there as Roller always claimed he did. Well as far as I know, Bill was there in the 1980s and he may have just gotten his dates mixed up as he was getting a bit older by the time we took over. However, Bukowski still may have made trips to L.A. from time to time for various reasons and stopping by King Eddy during that time doesn't seem that implausible to me. At the end of the day, though, I would go by what Esotouric has to contribute. They've spent countless hours working on these timelines and doing the due diligence.
They used to have the buzzers on the bathroom doors to let you in ... people were doing heroine and they’d do drug deals ...Even when we took it over people were still doing that kind of stuff.
How did the downstairs speakeasy part operate during Prohibition? It was simple but it was elegant. There were windows on the outside with beautiful awnings. The doors were right at the corner where they are now. The windows may have opened up at the time. It was more classic Victorian saloon meets Western saloon. There was some money involved in that place. They didn’t cut corners. They made it a very nice place to hang out specifically for the hotel crowd and customers but also to invite people in. A lot of time speakeasies got romanticized that they were grandiose, ornate. I think this one was a little more raw and had basic tables with stools and very simple offerings, whiskey, whatever they had or could get their hands on. Back down there there was that hallway, there’s a prep table back there and a hood system so maybe they made chili and very simple food offerings so people could eat and drink.
When did things take a turn for the worse for the King Eddy? The death of the Red Car was when it started to turn big time. The late ‘50s to ‘60s is when it really started to decline. That area really took a dive. The Red Car used to go right down Fifth Street and it looked great. That was probably the ‘40s and ladies were all dressed to the nines and guys had suits and hats. And there were lots of shops. The early ‘60s that all went away and it just rapidly declined like the rest of downtown. It was due to a couple things: that it wasn’t as accessible and people weren’t walking anymore and a lot of the businesses would close down at 5 o’clock. And so it was strictly daytime, people would go to work and leave so they just couldn’t sustain it. The automobile allowed them to live wherever the hell they wanted to live. And it happened really fast unfortunately. Rents kept going lower and that brought in a lesser quality person, unfortunately, socioeconomically. Ultimately they became SROs (single room occupancy). Unfortunately at the time there were still all these great, beautiful, old buildings that just got knocked down. That’s why I’m so adamant about doing the little I can do to preserve that piece of history that’s still there. Because there’s not a lot of it in L.A. anymore.
What was the bar like during the ‘80s and ‘90s drug epidemic? Seedy. Cocaine was huge just like in New York. Heroine. It was a pretty gnarly place to be. They used to have the buzzers on the bathroom doors to let you in. The doors are like steel. Because people were doing heroine and they’d do drug deals. They’d go in there and hide their drugs and leave. And then somebody would come in and pick it up. Even when we took it over people were still doing that kind of stuff. The button is still behind the bar but we took the buzzers off.
For 100 years people were smoking inside and nobody gave a damn.
Everyone was worried when ACME bought it thinking you’d tear it down. The most vocal people are generally the ones that don’t like change and they take ownership in these places. Which I understand and I like to hear it: good, bad, or indifferent. There’s value and I’m hearing what they have to say. And I’m having long conversations with people that were just so angry about it. But then they understood it eventually when you put it in perspective that for us it’s a business, too. Honestly if someone else bought that place, they’d knock it down and do something else with it or just put a retail shop in there. It’s gotta be a balance to make it legitimate.
What’s the secret to its longevity even with being on the border of Skid Row? I think the history of it has helped it. I think for a long time it had a very loyal regular following. Some of which have now passed on, they got old. It was a Skid Row bar. They were opened at 6 in the morning. No place is open at 6 in the morning. And the people that went there would hang out all day. The overhead wasn’t too big so they could make a couple of dollars. The owners were done but for the people that worked there it was a love affair with the place. They felt an obligation.
What’s the story with the smoking room, the plexi-glass closet where people can smoke in the bar? It’s a strange little room. That part of the bar happened in the ‘60s. That side used to be a separate address. That whole side of the bar was a barbershop, a motor pool, a lot of different things. And then the owner at the time, Croik, decided to expand the bar in the ‘60s and made it that big bar that it was. And there was a piece in that corner where the smoking room is now that had skee ball and shuffleboard before they built those banquettes where Bukowski sat. But they had to get rid of those because the drunks were throwing it across the bar breaking stuff. When smoking became illegal, he found a loophole that that little area was a separate address and so he built that little penalty box and he would store kegs in there. And they built a door and glass and that’s where people would smoke. And the way they got away with it was that it wasn’t part of the bar by letter of the law they couldn’t do it but they just left them alone. For 100 years people were smoking inside and nobody gave a damn.
With the bar's location across the street from Skid Row, there must have been a special kind of person to bartend the place. What is a Skid Row bartender like? Some of them were junkies but functional junkies, whatever that means. They were all smokers. They were part of it. Bill [Roller] lived upstairs, right above the bar. A lot of the bartenders lived in that area so they knew everyone there. They were a salty crew. It was that old school mentality of don’t mess with the bartender. That’s why we stopped opening at 6 a.m. because to me that wasn’t the business that I wanted. It did get a bit rough.
Because of the customers? [The patrons were] angry about everything. And it’s hard to make money off a $2 Budweiser. But I appreciate that element of what it was. Had they not done that it probably would have shut down years ago. There was no rational conversations with some of these people. It was difficult. It was an experience for me. I learned a lot as a result of it. Made some really good friends. Some of the people I got to know there I still really adore.
What’s the future of the downstairs speakeasy now? Partnering with Jeremy Fall is going to show us whether it warrants doing the downstairs. If we can make this work then it makes sense. It’s a gamble. You’ve gotta spend big bucks to do that. We think at the end of the day, this kind of crowd is going to be one element of what would go downstairs, so if they’re going to come for this they’re going to come for that. We still want to do it. We have a design in place. We have a team of designers that are called the Design Bitches. We did a design with Ricki Kline. We still have that which we liked but we thought perhaps we want to do something different. We met these girls who have done a lot more restaurants. They did the Oinkster in Eagle Rock, Superba in Venice, Snack Bar among other things. But we liked their style so they gave us a really great design. So we have that ready to go. We like the rawness of downstairs but the bottom line is we have to spend X dollars to make it legal because it’s electrical, air conditioning, fire and safety, all that is hundreds of thousands of dollars just in and of itself. It’s still our game plan.