As it were, I found myself with a night to kill in Los Angeles. A Google search for “dive bars in L.A.” turned up Frank ‘n Hank, a throwback, low-brow watering hole purportedly frequented by Charles Bukowski when the joint was run by its original owners: Frank the father, and Hank the son. And Koreatown wasn’t Koreatown – we’re talking 1960s and 70s – it was considered Central L.A. The point is, things have changed, but Frank ‘n Hank is still serving cocktails from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., seven days a week.
The establishment in question is now run by a very nice, capable older woman named Snow, whose countenance suggests, “I’ve seen it all, and most of it I don’t want to see again.” Fair enough.
Frank ‘n Hank was a leisurely 10-minute stroll from my hotel, which was about as far as I wanted to travel that evening. So, according to the Frank ‘n Hank’s Facebook page, Wednesday night’s special was $2 bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. No mention of karaoke.
As an exceedingly vague pop cultural reference, the façade of Frank ‘n Hank is one of a dozen or so bars that appear in the opening title sequence of the motion picture Barfly (1987) starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway – written by Charles Bukowski. When viewed as a semi-autobiographical depiction of the author’s life in L.A. – which it is – Barfly is a decent movie. If you didn’t know anything about Bukowski before watching the film, you might not appreciate it as much as an aficionado of his work.
Meanwhile, there is only circumstantial evidence to suggest that Frank ‘n Hank had anything to do with the film and it’s important to note its location – about three miles south of Barfly’s fictional but very real location – the vicinity of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue. In fact, there’s no mention of the joint in this short film [part of a documentary The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985) by filmmaker Barbet Schroeder – who directed Barfly]. However, this map shows that in 1972, Bukowski occupied an apartment at 151 S. Oxford, which is definitely in striking distance of Frank ‘n Hank.
Anyway, the general tone of Yelp reviews described the bar as a ‘classic dive’ which tends to draw it’s fair share of “hipsters”, particularly before and after a show at the nearby Wiltern Theater, but notwithstanding an eclectic mix of characters or friendly regulars. The drinks are cheap, the bartender is nice; they have a pool table, dartboards and a jukebox. CASH ONLY! The only thing more agreeable would have been a pinball machine. Then you really have my attention.
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much out of Frank ‘n Hank, and I was not disappointed. Other than $2 PBRs, there was nothing especially outstanding – impressive – about the visit. The joint retains a superficial veneer of its bygone dive bar ambiance, but none of the funk. When I first walk through a dive bar door, I’m waiting for the funk – the noxious combination of stale beer, rancid cigarettes, and the lingering fumes of industrial cleaner, self-loathing and addiction. Meanwhile, the clientele is what truly defines a dive, and other than one lone shark pool hustler sitting idly in the back, unnervingly quiet, the only two “characters” in the joint may have been the bartender and yours truly.
A dive bar is the kind of place – or used to be the kind of place – where it’s not a question of whether some chick puked in the ladies’ bathroom last night, whether some dude got hit over the head with a beer bottle by his old lady, it’s how many times and how much vomit/blood was involved?
Though it’s easy to imagine Bukowski hanging out in that kind of a place, Frank ‘n Hank isn’t that place anymore. Aside from a rough portrait of the irascible man hanging behind the bar, his ghost was not present. The joint seemed completely devoid of dive bar “edge”. If someone had broken a glass, I might have twitched in surprise. A baseball game was on the flat screen. Nothing happened. The joint was one continuous shrug. Of course this impression is based entirely upon one anonymous visit, by a dude who doesn’t and has never lived in L.A.
The jukebox was decent, if homogenous and predictable for a dive – surprising for a so-called “hipster” joint. You’da thought at the bare minimum, it would have Slint’s Spiderland or something from My Bloody Valentine, but no dice. In this way, F’nH jukebox reminded me of a true dive; it had all the big hits – Johnny Cash, AC/DC, Metallica, G’nR, Tom Petty – but nothing that would knock my socks off, like for instance, Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak.
Did they have any Thin Lizzy? Nope. But I accidentally programmed “Long Black Veil” three times because I forgot how a jukebox works, basically.
Six or seven beers – let’s call it seven – and four hours later, I’d pumped $5 into the jukebox but hadn’t talked to anyone other than the bartender – and that was “May I please have…?” and “Thank you”. For the most part, I didn’t even eavesdrop on people. It was kind of nice; I just sat there and chilled with my thoughts and listened to the music – a type of purgatory I don’t always get the opportunity to enjoy.
The place never got close to full, but the crowd seemed to rotate every half hour or so. The only thing I remember anybody saying is some kid telling his date that he was thinking about becoming a driver for Uber. “What a great idea!” the woman gushed.
All in, a body could get fairly squared away at Frank ‘n Hank for $26, and that’s infallible.* The joint might be running low on atmosphere, but it’s rocking the economy.
Bottom line: If I lived in or near Koreatown, I would probably frequent Frank ‘n Hank on a semi-regular basis. If I lived elsewhere in L.A., it would make a good pit stop for a show at the Wiltern, and at this point, the contingencies have will reached critical mass. Frank ‘n Hanks plays the part, but doesn’t come with the dive bar funk – location and bargain prices are the main attractions.
* Generally speaking, I tip $1 per bottle/can/drink/glass no matter what it is. So for me, this was $3 PBRs all night, which is not too shabby.