I remember the first time I went to a bar owned by the Houston brothers. Soon after I started working at a music venue in Hollywood, a coworker took me to Piano Bar. As we walked up, she introduced me to the doorman and we walked past the bar where a respected musician was playing on the piano tucked in the corner. People were wildly singing along and dancing, although no member of the music industry was in sight. We walked to the patio where she lit a cigarette and casually spoke to a musician I had been a fan of for years. It was overwhelming, yet familiar with faces I knew sprinkled throughout the crowd. The spirit of the bar was electric, and in a way, it felt like my coworker was saying, “Welcome to Hollywood.”
When I first heard of the Houston brothers, fraternal twins Mark and Jonnie, I was told of the secret entrance at La Descarga. With the renaissance of speakeasy-themed bars in Los Angeles, the Houston brothers were at the forefront, while still maintaining uniqueness to the brand they were building. At the time, they had just opened their third bar, Harvard & Stone, and La Descarga was steadily building buzz. They have since expanded their brand into nine locations and counting, including Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, No Vacancy, Dirty Laundry, Break Room 86, and Butchers & Barbers.
In July 2013, my neighbor wanted to go to this Cuban-inspired bar with a secret entrance. So we made reservations, dressed up in cocktail attire, and went out. After our friend parked around the corner (she comically managed to squeeze into a parking space with one inch of room on either side of her car), we walked up Western Avenue through East Hollywood (“Where are we?” might have been muttered once or twice) to the inconspicuous entrance of La Descarga.
by Avery Underhill, bar manager, Butchers & Barbers
2 raspberries (muddled)
¾ oz. Cilantro-infused Velvet Falernum
½ oz. Pamplemousse
1 oz. Lime
1 ½ oz. Altos Reposado tequila
Shake and fine strain over large cubes into a footed sour glass. Garnish with cilantro blossoms and straw.
Once you walked upstairs into an office and through a closet door, you were in on the secret. The night gets blurry from there, but many a mojito was consumed, salsa was danced, and cigars were smoked. That evening was a turning point in bonding with my neighbor, and we often bring up stories from this night in conversation.
Just a few weeks ago, I sat down with Mark and Jonnie Houston at their restaurant, Butchers & Barbers. Located on the street level of Hollywood Boulevard in front of No Vacancy and above Dirty Laundry, the restaurant walls are adorned with vintage images, an antique barber chair haunts the corner, art deco windows provide a peek into the kitchen, and church pews provide seating for patrons. There is something oddly holy about the meticulousness of their design aesthetic. If you go to enough Houston bars, you can’t help but notice the attention to detail and design sensibility that is somehow eccentric and refined. It’s entirely unique to their brand. Mark and Jonnie are out scouring antique malls and flea markets for distinctive objects to decorate their spaces and complement their concepts. “When you find something, they’re like art pieces,” says Jonnie. Although many of their found pieces sit in a warehouse waiting to be used on a future project (what I wouldn’t give to walk through this warehouse…).
“Sometimes one piece can inspire a whole project; you just never know,” says Mark. For the brothers, inspiration can come from anywhere.
“We go through a space, and the feng shui has to feel right. Sometimes we’ll have our monk come in and bless it,” says Jonnie. “After we commit to it, we need to travel. We have spaces right now, and we’re not jumping into just creating something; it just has to happen. So our process is a little unconventional—it’s unique and different.”
“We both have a lot of concepts in the back of our head that we want to create, but just because we take over a space, we’re not going to try to fit a triangle into a circle,” continues Mark. “But if we get a space, sit in it, and feel it out, sometimes organically it happens or we get inspired by something, like a vacation.”
Jonnie chimes back in: “A lot of people ask, ‘How did you open five spaces in two years?’ And you know what? It has to be one of those reasons. A lot of people think of concepts before they open. You know what they spend? Three years trying to find that space for that concept. What we do is we get the property. The rent’s great and we can get a liquor license approved, but when we’re going through the building process, we’re traveling … You can’t authentically deliver a product if you don’t travel, experience it and share it. It just won’t come off in the same way. Or we’re buying antiques and collecting, and it goes from there.”
With travel clearly a prime source of inspiration for the brothers, they often want to bring a city back to Los Angeles. In a way, it’s providing a quick escape to Paris or Havana.
“When you fall in love with a city, you’re not going to jump on a plane and go there every weekend. But if you want to bring that back and share it with your friends, you’re going to execute it as authentically as possible,” explains Jonnie. “What’s beautiful about L.A. or any major metropolitan city is it’s a melting pot with so many cultural differences.”
“If it is a travel-based concept, you want to bring it back home. I want to be able to go there and share it with someone,” says Mark.
Hollywood was also lacking a nightlife scene that wasn’t a nightclub or dive bar. And it was lacking destinations for creative-minded individuals to visit from other parts of Los Angeles.
“Growing up, we didn’t feel like there were any places for us. It was either these huge nightclubs or these shitty dive bars. And don’t get me wrong, we love dive bars. But you can’t bring a date there,” says Mark. The brothers wanted to create a place they would want to go to—a place with an all-encompassing experience: consistently great cocktails, live entertainment (like a band or burlesque show), intriguing interior design, and an engaging atmosphere.
“Those four elements are our secret recipe,” says Jonnie. “We both feel you can’t have one without the other. You have to have all of that to have a full experience.”
“That’s why we do what we do. We think about all those things,” he adds. “When we design and conceptualize, we sit in every chair to see how this person will feel and what their experience is so we can tweak it and make it that much better.”
It’s not unusual to spot the brothers at one of their bars on any given night. They’re always looking to have a presence, and to improve as well. “We’re only as good as our team,” says Jonnie. “There’s no job too little or too big. We won’t ever be those guys who will close our doors on them. We listen to everything. It’s important to be able to reach us and give us feedback. “
“It’s a passion, what we do. We’re not those guys who will sit up in some office. We go out,” he continues. “You can’t hit everything out of the park right off the bat. Being there and making adjustments, changing and being open to that, as opposed to how a lot of people open something and get stuck in their ways—you have to be open-minded to change. But if you’re not there experiencing it, you’re not going to know.”
Mark adds, “I like to think every seat is equally as important. And that goes for everything—food, plating, cocktails. It’s all intertwined.”
“When you’re served a cocktail, you want to put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and say, ‘how do I feel about this presentation and taste?’ It’s the whole experience. We do that on every level—with the design, with the entrance,” says Jonnie. “You only have one chance to impress someone. Their first impression is everything.” From the moment you enter through a door, a closet, a bed, a refrigerator or a loading dock, they want to wow you.
“It’s word of mouth—it’s what it’s all about,” says Mark. If you have an enjoyable experience, you’re more likely to tell your friends. Several years ago, I would go to the new Houston bar because someone recommended it to me. Now, I go because their brand is consistent; I want to see what they’ll do next and I know I’m going to have a good time. Like the time I went to an after party at Davey Wayne’s following a sold-out concert at The Fonda Theatre. Or the countless evenings at Piano Bar where musicians sang and tried out new material to an unassuming crowd while I laughed on the patio with good friends. Or the time I went on a date to Pour Vous and we kissed in the cable car with glasses of wine in our hands and a fluorescent sign reading “cocktails” flickered over our heads. These are all fond memories, and when I share these stories with friends, I’m essentially vouching for these spaces.
Much of the shift in L.A.’s nightlife culture is largely due to the Houston brothers. It’s now more commonplace to get consistently quality drinks in a consistently quality and safe environment. Entrepreneurs are jumping on the bandwagon to serve the best cocktails in town. But how do you separate yourself from the pack? Your bar has to value the experience as much as the cocktails. Although the cocktails are poured by first-rate bartenders in a high-volume environment (Harvard & Stone was a finalist for Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2013, 2014 and 2015. La Descarga received the nomination in 2012), and the drinks will be reliably good, you’re going to look back on that night and think of who you met, what you saw, and how you felt.
“We gear our places to be social environments where people can hopefully meet each other and get to meet new, like-minded people. Even though L.A. is a big city, it’s really small once you get in a community,” says Jonnie.
“We’re big believers of not ever putting TVs in our bars and restaurants,” he explains. “We’re creating social environments and want people to engage. We don’t want people to be stuck on a fucking TV. There’s nothing engaging about that. You don’t interact. Our places are tight and you bump into people. What does that do? It creates discussion. ‘Hey, I’m Jonnie. Pleasure to meet you.’”
“There are tons of TVs at Break Room,” Mark adds, laughing.
“It’s a design element,” Jonnie shoots back, explaining that people still lose themselves in the screens there.
“That TV creates conversation too,” says Mark.
Their newest bar, Break Room 86, ventures outside of Hollywood to Koreatown. As an ode to where they grew up, the brothers decided to theme the bar with everything 1980s. Amps and cassette tapes line the walls, classic arcade games provide entertainment, and you can order specialty items like push-pops (they collaborated with Salt & Straw to create these).
While you can find classic and specialized cocktails at any of their bars, you also might find some other surprises. “All of our bartenders are well trained and know how to do the classics. But everything we create on the menu aids and helps complete the whole experience or the vision of that concept,” explains Jonnie. “Good Times at Davey Wayne’s is based on our father, who passed away a few years ago. One of my dad’s favorite cocktails was the old fashioned, so we did a little twist on that.”
“And put it on tap,” says Mark.
You can also order a snow cone from the trailer bar at Davey Wayne’s. Yes, it’s parked on a porch over some astroturf. And the interior walls are lined with vintage ‘70s pornography. How’s that for attention to detail?
Next time you go to a bar owned by Houston Hospitality, look closely at the décor—the framed photos on the walls, the vintage seating, and the hanging lights. At Davey Wayne’s, you walk through a garage sale before you enter the bar through a refrigerator door. Mark and Jonnie aren’t just providing a place to drink, but a place to experience somewhere else, whether that is another place or time. Their eye for curating allows for their bars to be as much as art installation as they are social environments.
“Some people come in and say, ‘I love the design.’ Some people come in and say, ‘I love the roller-skaters,” or, “I love the burlesque dancers.’ Some people come in and say, ‘I love the cocktails.’ There’s something for everybody,” says Jonnie. “Everything works together.”
So what does the future of Houston Hospitality look like? “Hospitality on every level, where we can capture the attention and create a space that is not only for two to four to six hours, but 24 hours where it includes lodging, and maybe resorts in the near future. That’s what we’re gearing towards,” says Jonnie. This is, of course, the natural progression of the empire they’re rapidly building—opening bars to restaurants to lodging to resorts. And they’re moving toward opening bars in other cities. They’ve recently looked at Austin and Nashville, for starters.
“We’re never going to be those guys who will look at building a hotel in Beverly Hills or an established neighborhood. We’re all about being a little on the edge,” says Jonnie. And whether you’ve been to No Vacancy or Dirty Laundry or Piano Bar in the epicenter of Hollywood, or La Descarga in East Hollywood, you can attest to this. They want to be there on the ground level lifting a community up.
Butchers & Barbers
6531 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028