Thursday, March 3, 2011

Another Time & Space :: Welcome To Harvard & Stone

Another Time & Space :: Welcome To Harvard & Stone
By LA’s Key

The interesting thing about the L.A. nightlife landscape is its wealth of options but lack of great bar lounges. There is a real demand for a“hang out”, somewhere to sit and soak up the scene without being forced to buy five bottles. What about the people who want to absorb the atmosphere and wander around? And perhaps be able to talk to the company they are with??

It seems that, especially in Hollywood, there are either seedy dive bars or dramatic top-40 raging nightclubs; neither of which really do it for me. What's truly missing is a concept that about a year ago I deemed “experiential nightlife.” In the past year, a few talented Angeleno nightlife entrepreneurs have started to develop just that. Fighting the norm of another black box with 4 walls, a cheap interior re-design, and Hollywood's hottest (or at this time, youngest) promoters coupled with most expensive bottle service, sadly nightlife patrons grew accustomed to this lack of true experience. But really, how much are these club patrons being affected or feeling from this? Not much, honestly.

To me, the grandest feat for a owner/designer is creating an experience that transports people to an alternate world, another place and time. Coming from a dance and theater background, (with an obsession for great architecture and design) I have a natural appreciation for an immersive experience that a well-designed space can bring. When these elements are combined perfectly, it is left to the imagination of the patron to escape to that time and space. I feel this is really where “it's at”. With nightlife's over-saturated and well frankly, boring super club standard, this is what LA (and anyone say over 25 with some taste, class, and artistry) needs.

I'd say the first great example of experiential nightlife was The Edison (1920s Thomas Edison power plant meets silent film star styled speakeasy), however Downtown L.A. lends itself to more edge and creativity than other districts. In the recent year and a half, other examples include Voyeur (think vintage-era Paris brothel with risque beautiful dancers) and my favorite to date, La Descarga (1930s Havana, Cuba/Castro-ish Cigar Lounge). Hemingway's took a stab at this too, while their design is impeccably vintage-faithful, the service, staff, and music did not complete the experience, I still felt like I was in Hollywood in 2010-ish.

There are two particular young gentlemen (twins actually!) who have played a significant role in creating a new nightlife landscape. They are Mark & Johnny Houston. Don't let their age fool you; at 32 they have proved to be two of the most design savvy nightlife entrepreneurs in town. They literally were exposed to the nightlife as soon as they came out of the womb! Mark & Johnny’s mother owned nightclub venues from when they were little babies and they’d often times be hanging around the business. They have already several successful bars under their belt: The Piano Bar, the Bronson Bar, La Descarga (my favorite), Temporary Spaces 1/2/3 (being temporary they are no longer), their newest creation Harvard & Stone, and many more new creations in the works including the former spaces of 40 Deuce, Jane’s House, Crane’s Tavern, & Falcon.

Their development process is brilliant, they simply have what most people don't: The courage and creativity to execute their ideas. In most cases, they find seedy dive bars off the beaten path, though not too far from bustling areas. Unlike most club renovations, which either are cheap, ugly, and tasteless OR require hiring a big name designer who will pour hundreds of thousands upon millions of dollars into re-doing former hotspots; the Houstons are doing something totally off the mark, and it works. Just take the success of La Descarga for example. It's not successful because Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton poured down some El Presidentes or Sweet Ginger Cocktails there, or the fact that the Alliance or Bolthouse Productions were involved – No, genuine honestly earned success because their concept, service, design, entertainment, staff, and everything are just that good and really are unique and affecting! Their bars are probably the most successful of any nightlife group without having promoters or a publicist, which to me, a 9+ year hospitality industry veteran, is crazy, but amazing!

Which brings me to the their newest project, the once neighbored Thai Town dive, “The Stone Bar” has been transformed, and like backtracking time machine, we arrive at Harvard & Stone, or H&S for short. Call it ‘vintage industrial’, it pays homage to the machine era á la 1930s & 40s and early industrialist workers such as Rosie the Riveter (she represented American women working in factories during WWII in ads such as J. Howard Miller's “We Can Do it!”). Not the average bar theme right? Seeing the space before and after is a jaw-dropping experience, it’s hardly recognizable. So many hidden areas of the venue were “discovered” and opened up that no one would ever know it previously existed. My favorite part of their renovation was how they uncovered many layers, exposing beautiful original elements from this 1926 brownstone style building, like beautiful beams and weathered exposed brick. As a finishing touch, they added their signature flair of cracking weathered paint where it may have been missing; the old and the new are mixed seamlessly.

The Harvard & Stone space is the perfect size; it accommodates about 300-350 guests and has that fun maze-like floor plan. Think WWII industrial factory meets steam-punk/rock n' roll warehouse. Not expecting what you are about to see, you enter through a gorgeous warehouse steel-track door into a large main room complete with a huge center bar and a small stage to its left, which is rumored to host some big name rock acts, secret shows, & special performances in the future. The bar and rim of the ceilings are outfitted with rigging and bars to support a thematic dance show, said to kick- off in three weeks (I can’t wait!). Musically, the venue will feature DJs, but also has a jukebox filled with various rock albums and even some specially made compilations from friends and family! Everything about this room is “worn out” vintage industrial in the most perfect way. Mark Houston says to expect some big performances that won’t be yet publicized; you may just have to be there to get lucky! From exposed beams, distressed paint, aged hanging metal baskets shelving liquor, custom crafted chesterfield style banquettes, gorgeous wire lighting complete with Edison bulbs, hand-made cocktail tables constructed on vintage steel parts, and even a working fireplace, all are original to this venue. Similar to La Descarga, there are also shadow box display cabinets filled with antiques and era/theme specific trinkets, this room undoubtedly takes you to that other place and time.

One can venture upstairs to a more “broiler room” theme. It has a small office as well as a green room for performing talent; of course all defined by killer burnished steel railings & detailing. The upstairs balcony space overlooks the main room festivities and connects thru with a small catwalk overlooking the back private bar/ indoor smoking room. This intimate back room complete with its own bar is my absolute favorite. It has amazing 20’ foot ceilings and a huge roll-up door with original stained glass and window bars, making it a legal indoor open-air smoking space. The bar itself is beautifully adorned with a prop-like antique scale garnished with fresh produce used for drink mixology, and tractor seat barstools made of burnished steel. Behind this there is an actual outdoor smoking patio, a narrow and hidden corridor if one wants some real fresh air, or merely to escape the debauchery.

Another staple of any Houston bar is their attention to mixology matched with having unique, local (or imported), rare spirits and ingredients. The art of mixology has been a trend for the past few years and really brings a culinary edge to drinking, which I think is appreciated by many. As opposed to being a one “spirit-centric” establishment, H&S plans to focus on all popular American Spirits.

With an impressive mixology menu created by industry veterans Steve Livigni & Pablo Moix, some of my Harvard & Stone favorites included; the welcome shot of 103 proof ‘Fighting Cock’ bourbon, the Trinidad Sour (Angostura bitters, St. Vincent’s Orgeat Syrup, lemon juice, root liqueur), and the Fernet Cocktail (Fernet Branca, Canton Ginger, Carpano Antica, lime juice, Begatta ginger beer) . They are intricately concocted to include either ice hand-crushed in a burlap sack, or those delightfully large ice cubes we all love to hate, served in alluring, yet small vintage replicated glassware. Drink prices are around $10, a bit more affordable then most bars' $14 specialty drinks, plus…I guarantee you they are stiffer! The main bar has a delectable menu of custom crafted mixology cocktails, while the liquor is ever eloquently displayed in vintage metal baskets suspended from the ceiling on steel chains. The back bar will spotlight notable guest bartenders and featured local made brands, and will have its own specialty cocktail menu that will rotate monthly, featuring a new spirit. Gin is next up for March! I am also a fan of their beer taps, which were crafted out of silver fire extinguishers, and are quite eye-catching! The theme is carried out through every minute detail; even as far as the menu on aged cardstock with typewriter font on a tiny distressed looking clipboard, a very period-worthy antique!

The Houston twins have the Midas Touch; everything they touch turns to gold, and it’s their genius talent, unparalleled creativity, and a killer general manger Mr. Livigni that transforms a dream into a reality. Harvard & Stone has an enchanting vibe that will seduce your imagination and sense of time. If you want to imagine you're a 1940s factory worker on break in need of a killer cocktail, you can do just that. Amen to “experiential nightlife”, and until I am able to create the long plotted restaurant/bar/lounge of my own, visit theirs and save the date to experience H&S for yourself, my birthday party is set there for Monday March 28th! Cheers!

*photos by : Odessy Barbu (

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