Off-Ramp®

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Roll out the barrel: First look inside restored Idle Hour Cafe, historic North Hollywood gem

by John Rabe and Maya Sugarman | Off-Ramp®

Barrel-shaped Idle Hour Cafe in North Hollywood on Vineland Avenue is set to open in February 2015. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

It's called "programmatic architecture" — a building that looks like something other than a building — and examples have been common around Southern California: the Brown Derby, the giant tamale on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., and in North Hollywood, a giant barrel.

The Idle Hour Cafe is at 4824 Vineland Avenue, and you  can see it to the left in this historic photo. It was built of cedar, and according to the L.A. Public Library, was commissioned in 1941 by Universal Studios film tech Michael D. Connolly and built by Silver Lake engineer George F. Fordyk.

(Undated photo from the L.A. Public Library's Valley Times Collection)

The Idle Hour was eventually turned into a flamenco venue called La Cana — before owner Dolores Fernandez closed it in 1984 and just started living in it. When she died, the county acquired the property, and that's where L.A. historian and L.A. Magazine writer Chris Nichols comes in:

I told the story of the barrel to some folks that were experts at creating colorful and theatrical dining and drinking spots in the hope that they could breathe new life into this landmark. Bigfoot Lodge owner Bobby Green was captivated by the beauty of the barrel and signed on. — Los Angeles Magazine, 2011

In 2011, the building was sold at auction to Green and his 1933 Group, which runs seven bars across Los Angeles, including the Bigfoots West and East, Thirsty Crow, Harlow, La Cuevita and Oldfield's. $1.4 million later, Green says, and the Idle Hour Cafe will reopen in mid-February. As you can see in KPCC photographer Maya Sugarman's photos, it's been lovingly rebuilt, restored and reimagined because very few original elements remained, and the structure was not up to code.

The 1933 Group's website says it wants to transport its customers "to another era, if only for the night," and with the Idle Hour, that era will be a Los Angeles when people thought it was cool to build a bar that looked like a barrel. Green tells us the menu will be classic American, and the many beverage taps will feature 20 beers and many draft cocktails — whiskey-based, in keeping with the barrel theme. And in back, you can throw a small party in another piece of programmatic architecture: a giant dog that eerily resembles Green's pet bulldog.

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