Photo by Danny Liao

The Good Luck Bar Closes: A Eulogy to Nights Spent

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The beloved Los Feliz bar shuttered May 4; it served as the stomping grounds for many of L.A.’s hospitality veterans, even fostering one of the city’s pioneering beer unions.

Opened in 1994 by Sean MacPherson and Jon Sidel, Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz was the first bar of its kind. It marked the beginning of an era when Los Angeles nightlife flirted with making what was old new again, and with designing bars around nostalgic or faraway themes that created a sense of time and place.

Leading up to the time Good Luck Bar opened, L.A. nightlife was largely comprised of music venues and nightclubs, dive bars and old-timey bar/restaurants. MacPherson and Sidel had just opened restaurants which still stand today as mainstays: Jones Hollywood and Swingers. Good Luck Bar arrived on the scene featuring rich red hues and no natural light; it was completely closed off to the street, giving the interior a consistent feel no matter what time of day or year. The main bar sat in the center, ensconced by an indoor pagoda-style roof, serving sugar-forward drinks in elaborate tiki glassware.

Right now, awareness of cultural appropriation is as prevalent in the food and beverage industry as it’s ever been, but the bar’s Asian kitsch had largely succeeded in evading controversy — barring the occasional Chinese twin burlesque performance that is. The motif, however, served as an homage to Yee Mee Loo, the beloved Chinatown watering hole MacPherson frequented before it closed in 1989, five years before Good Luck opened. Yee Mee Loo’s legacy lived on at Good Luck Bar via a cocktail of the same name; a tweaked version of its signature blue drink — a vodka and white rum-based cocktail with pineapple juice, coconut cream and blue curacao.

Over its 25-year lifetime, Good Luck Bar developed a loyal following of diverse patrons, endearing itself to the local community and swaths of artists of varying crafts. Weekly DJ nights by Travis Keller, known as Buddyhead, laid down venerable rock ‘n roll playlists, giving the jukebox a rest and listeners curated music. Poetry readings lent beautiful lyricism to audiences seeking inspiration.

“In 2006, I featured there as a poet for Rhapsodomancy, a legendary reading that Wendy Ortiz and Andrea Quaid hosted there for about 10 years,” says Mike Sonksen, L.A. native and Good Luck patron. “After partying there so many times, sometimes after readings, it was a blast to rock poems there.”

Meanwhile, blogger Tony Pierce, formerly the editor-in-chief of LAist, found in Good Luck Bar a place to host his first meeting for the then-scrappy digital publication startup.

“Good Luck Bar was a sweet spot of all the things I really wanted in a neighborhood bar that you’re not gonna get in the suburbs, the Valley or downtown,” he says. “It’s legit, not pretentious and not trying to be something else … Unlike many places in L.A., you didn’t go there to be seen.”

The bar blossomed at a time that came before the city’s craft cocktail renaissance. Like many of today’s craft cocktails, the drinks at Good Luck Bar had three or more ingredients, but unlike many of today’s craft cocktails, they couldn’t be further away from fussy. Many of the drinks were blended with crushed ice and the hum of the blender was woven into the bar’s soundtrack.

The bar also served as the stomping grounds for many of L.A.’s hospitality veterans, even fostering one of the city’s pioneering beer unions.

“[Good Luck Bar] was one of my first dates with Jeremy [Raub, husband and brewery co-founder]. We used to go there all the time sucking down drinks like the Fist of Fury and he would play random musical notes with the straws,” says Ting Su, Eagle Rock Brewery co-founder.

Good Luck Bar also became a place for late night shenanigans. Steve Livigni, managing partner of Scopa Italian Roots, Chestnut Club, Old Lightning and Dama, recalls a particularly wild night.

“One night a long time ago, I drove there kind of buzzed, pulled in the parking lot, saw it was full, then backed both sets of tires over the spikes and popped all four tires,” Livigni says. “There were quite a few people outside including the door guy that watched. I parked the truck in the first safe space and walked in. Door guy bought me a drink. The other one cost me about $1,000 that night.”

And although the drinks were sweet, Good Luck Bar holds legendary status even among the most serious imbibers. One of L.A.’s most notable drinkers, writer Caroline Pardilla, remembers Good Luck Bar fondly, even as her more frequent visits predate the beginnings of her cocktail blog Caroline on Crack.

“I drank there when I was into sweet drinks like Appletinis,” Pardilla says. “I loved collecting the matchbooks and little plastic dragon swizzle sticks. I went there for the jukebox, and all my single girlfriends and I would go there on Valentine’s Day.”

The importance of visuals in cementing a bar’s place in L.A. history wasn’t lost on Pardilla.

“I thought Good Luck Bar was beautiful,” she says. “I loved the neon sign; it’s iconic. Ever since I started taking pictures around L.A., I’d take a picture of that. It’s a classic symbol of L.A. nightlife.”

Good Luck Bar also served as a literal model for what other bar owners could believe would be possible. Bobby Green of 1933 Group says he felt a kinship with the space from the start.

“That was the first time that somebody had done a neo/retro vintage-inspired place that was new, but also old,” Green says. “And so what was nice about it was that it let me know that this works and there are people who do like these things other than just me and my friends. It’s quite possible that had the Good Luck Bar not opened, Bigfoot Lodge [Green’s first bar] would’ve never opened. Unless you have something to point to, to convince people that [the concept] works, investors don’t buy in. My partners maybe would’ve never done it. So I’ve always had a fond place in my heart for that place. I was inspired by what they did and made a career out of it. It’s sad to see it go.”

Thirsty patrons waiting to get in for one last drink at Good Luck Bar on May 4. Photo by Danny Liao.

May 4 marked the last day of business for the Good Luck Bar. They were surprised by an eviction from their landlords, Conroy Commercial Real Estate, who gave them notice in late 2018 and who demanded they hand over their liquor license, even after having already negotiated a lease including a rent increase in the past.

Spurred on by an online petition, the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council unanimously approved a resolution on April 30, 2019, expressing concern over the eviction of Good Luck Bar and calling for the city to invalidate permits previously approved for Conroy Commercial Real Estate on the premise that they were attained in bad faith back in 2014.

Dan McNamara is the vice president of administration for the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, and as a board member, he has kept tabs on Good Luck Bar’s plight.

“A review of our meeting minutes from then, and of the zoning administrator’s findings, states clearly that Conroy did not consider Good Luck Bar to be a part of their project and led the public to believe they’d be allowed to continue operations,” McNamara says.

Because the parameters of the project have clearly changed without notice to the neighborhoods, the council requested that the review process be reopened with public hearings and a review of compliance to consider whether the developer is capable of being a good neighbor to the community.

Unfortunately, this all might be symbolic, as McNamara admits that the neighborhood council cannot force a private property owner to lease to a private business.

But the invaluable memories and lasting relationships formed at the Los Feliz bar remain. As bar patron Anastasia Paveloff says, “At Good Luck, whether it was empty or full, the red and lanterns and kitsch glowing, I was always home, the bartenders kind, even if the crowds varied. Rest in peace, old Hollywood. Rest in peace, Good Luck Bar.”

Los Angeleno