There may be no finer hour in life to sidle up to a long wooden bar than mid-afternoon on a weekday, a time during which we seldom allow ourselves the pleasure, for obvious reasons having to do with slippery slopes. Only when we are traveling does the opportunity present itself unaccompanied by guilt. Entire destinations (Las Vegas, for one) have grown up around this principle.
So it was, during a recent visit to Los Angeles, that I turned up to the Black Cat bar on Sunset Boulevard in the peak hours of a scorching September afternoon. This was Silver Lake, Los Angeles’ shimmery answer to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I’d parked on a side street with no problem. At this time of day, the streets felt only somewhat deserted.
The Black Cat’s interior was moody and elegant, its chevron wood floors and wall panels and circular chesterfield booths punctuated by a few nods to the present-day—angular brass light fixtures, a tattooed wait staff—which keep the place from veering into Yale Club territory. The walls set the tone, painted the kind of grey that might get mistaken for a fading black—or maybe I mistook a fading black for a very dark grey. Either way, it was not a color native to LA.
There wasn’t much overt echo of this bar’s previous life as a gay bar, also called the Black Cat, that became the location of one of the country’s first gay rights demonstrations after undercover police officers arrested and beat patrons in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1967. Only the name remains, and some photographs on the walls recalling the demonstrations, which predated Stonewall by two and a half years.
I chose a seat at the bar near the front, leaving space between myself and the party of three lingering toward the back. Upon their departure not long after, they left me with the bar to myself.
Then, as if we’d merely been waiting out a pause between scenes in a play, an Amy Winehouse doppelganger entered from stage left (aka the front door), her hair wrapped in a turban, beige and black lingerie serving as outerwear, along with some sort of silky robe that flared dramatically as she surveyed her seating options. She didn’t settle on a location until her interviewer showed up and they agreed on a small corner table by the the front window, where the desaturated vibe of the interior mingled with the relentless sun outside, creating the perfect aesthetic dissonance for her discussion of what I didn’t try to avoid overhearing was a movie her father had made starring, largely, her. Both she and her interviewer ordered variations of hard stuff and she made like she wanted the collective attention of the bar to angle her way. Which it did.
Next, two friends entered and took a couple of stools around the corner of the bar from me. They ordered beers and shots. It seemed they hadn’t seen each other for a while, and that the guy felt some kid-sister sentiment for the girl, who was not at all girly, her hair cropped short and her t-shirt not tight. “I like this place during the day,” he said to her. “It’s a little overwhelming at night. I mean, it’s a happening place.”
At happening places with long, busy bars, food can famously come in as an afterthought. I rolled the dice and ordered the gnocchi.
It was exquisite, both fluffy and fried, alongside eggplant, summer squash and sage, all served on a base of eggplant puree. The dish reinvented gnocchi for me. I would drive out of my way to eat it again, probably even at night, probably even if I had to wait for a spot at the bar.
The Black Cat’s Bar Dining Basics:
Number of stools: 19
Bar Stool Comfort: A little padding but no backrests.
Hooks Under Bar? Yes
Bartenders: Hipster on the outside, kind on the inside.
The Black Cat
3909 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90029