Interviews by Harrison Walker ✵ Photos by Kremer / Johnson
Just before midnight on March 16, 2020, bartenders across Los Angeles announced last call, not realizing it would be the last time they’d do so for nearly 14 months.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and a shutdown of “nonessential” indoor spaces persisted month after month, the city’s classic dives, the backbone of the bar scene, were suddenly face to face with their own mortality.
“I had fear every day we weren’t gonna make it,” says Sandy Marchioli, owner operator of Godmothers, a San Pedro saloon that originally opened in 1963. She wasn’t alone.
Plenty of beloved bars didn’t survive the shutdown, but many made a triumphant return when they were given the green light to reopen in June, inviting back customers who spent a year without a home away from home to turn to.
“My experience of coming back from the pandemic was like a reunion episode of a television show,” says Club Tee Gee bartender Alex McElvain. “You never knew when to expect it, but then somebody would walk in and it would be like, ‘Oh my God!’ and, frankly, in the back of your head part of you is like, ‘You’re still alive!’”
We recently visited historic independent bars from Sherman Oaks to the South Bay to find out how they outlasted the shutdown and what it’s been like to fling open the doors once again. Here’s what bartenders they had to say in their own words.
Year opened: 1963
I had fear every day we weren’t gonna make it. I actually did a couple jobs: I cooked meals for the disabled and elderly for a couple months and I put all that money towards the business, and I also took a job waitressing and bartending and I sunk all that money into the business so I could try to keep it afloat. I’m still in debt, but I was able to at least pay insurance and partial rent.
I think everyone’s a little—I don’t know how to put it—they seem very grateful for everything now [that we’ve reopened]. It’s like if a bartender took a couple minutes too long to get a drink before, people would get upset and now it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, no worries!’
[Since reopening], we’ve changed around our live music a little bit so we’re seeing a lot of new faces, different demographics. It’s really nice. There’s something for everybody.
—Sandy Marchioli, owner/operator
Godmothers, 302 W. 7th St, San Pedro.
Club Tee Gee
Year opened: 1946
My experience of coming back from the pandemic was like a reunion episode of a television show. You never knew when to expect it, but then somebody would walk in and it would be like, ‘Oh my God!’ and, frankly, in the back of your head part of you is like, ‘You’re still alive!’
People would just walk in and it was just this constant cascade over a month, a month and a half, of just being reminded of all these people.
Have you ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life? So you know when he comes back and he’s all hurt and he grabs the stairwell knob and it was the sort of thing that used to drive him crazy but now he has this newfound appreciation, so he kisses the knob just out of happiness; that’s really what bartending is like coming out of the pandemic, it’s all these little things that you took for granted, whether they were the best things or things that could sometimes be a little annoying but you’re just grateful to be in that position again”
Just the ability to gather, just the ability to have people in a space that is specifically designed to share space casually and talk about whatever is on their mind—we just didn’t have that for over a year.
—Alex McElvain, bartender
Club Tee Gee, 3210 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village.
Alhambra Cocktail Lounge
Year opened: 1936
When the pandemic happened, we were all bummed out about it, of course, but we all got through it—thank God for the unemployment! And we all stuck with it because we wanted to come back here, all the bartenders.
It’s been busy all the time now. We have the same clientele; a lot of them we lost due to COVID.
— Lisa Guerrero, manager
Alhambra Cocktail Lounge, 216 W. 11th St., San Pedro.
Year opened: 1965
When COVID hit, we were very scared; it felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel, but the owners, they really looked out for us and really took care of us and made sure that we were OK. Ya know, we stuck together; we’re like a family and we’ve all kinda looked out for each other, we all help each other with things that we needed for our families or if somebody needed a place to stay they stayed with us. It was actually a very scary but beautiful experience.
Welcoming people back after so long was overwhelming but it was amazing. I remember the first day when we came back, I worked that whole first day and it was really nice to be able to see everyone again. It’s a bar where the same people come in every single day, so seeing those people again was a lot like seeing your closest friends who you haven’t seen in months. It was just like not seeing my family because of COVID or not seeing my close friends, it was the same, you know? It’s very much a family here.
— Mory Benperlas, bartender
Chimneysweep Lounge, 4354 Woodman Ave, Sherman Oaks.
Year opened: 1927
I was in Hawaii, playing in a volleyball tournament and the owners called me and said they were gonna shut down because of the pandemic, and I told them, ‘Don’t shut down, what I’ll do is I’ll come in here and clean and if people want burgers out the window then I’ll serve a burger out the window.’
So, the first day I was in here cleaning and I did ten burgers in eight hours. The next day I did 40 and then the next day I did 140—and it was minimum 140 every day just out of this window. We were one of the only places open around besides grocery stores. I was here for three months by myself, working 15-hour days. Then eventually we could bring our other manager in, Mikey, who’s been here since 1983.
Eventually we opened a patio. I built most of this patio right here to save money for the owners in Colorado; a lot of this stuff in this place that has gone on since COVID, I’ve done myself, so it’s just been nonstop. I haven’t had a day off really since March 18th, 2020 and I won’t until we have cooks and we’re fully staffed. We can’t even find staff right now.
All of our regulars supported us from the sidewalk, making sure we had money. I see them all the time; we’re like family here. The South Bay is family too, so I had all the other bartenders from the other places that were shut coming, everybody supporting me through working on my birthday and holidays, they all knew it and would come down and support me.
—Gary Barnes, aka “Barnes,” bartender
Ercoles 1101, 1101 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach.
Year opened: 1958
[We were fearful we wouldn’t make it], but we were very blessed that because we’ve been here for so long, our landlord was great with us. We had a couple of filmings here that helped out with rent. We just basically shut down operations so that there were the minimum expenditures we had to pay, and our landlord, who has owned the building since the Tonga Hut has been here, didn’t want to see us leave, so he worked with us wonderfully. And also we’re not in Hollywood, so we don’t have Hollywood rent, ya know, we have North Hollywood rent [laughs].
We do a thing that is sort of a loyalty program based on Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry’s Grog Log, which is a compilation of vintage recipes that he put together and if you have all 78 of them here in a year, then you become a member of a club that we call the ‘Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard.’ The ‘Drooling Bastard’ is one of our fountains, so it’s named after him. And, you know, a lot of people were excited to come back and either start it or start it again, get back on the horse, and I’m giving people 18, rather than just the year that we were previously because we still have limited seating, we’re not open seven days a week like we were before.
Being shut down really gave us an opportunity to clean up our operation and add drinks to the menu and retrain the staff on how to make the drinks properly; it’s not just a swigging-vodka-sodas-and-draft-beers kinda bar, ya know?
We did a couple of remodels as well: we redid the bathrooms; we redid the floors; and, we cleaned every corner of every nook with a fine-toothed comb, so that was fun [laughs].
—Marie King, manager
Tonga Hut, 12808 Victory Blvd, North Hollywood.
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