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Echo Park evolves into hipster destination

nullUpscale bars, restaurants and live-music clubs draw young crowds.
It’s late on the night before Thanksgiving, and the stretch of Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park, from Mohawk to Douglas Street, is littered with young revelers. Lines form in front of bars, including the Short Stop, the Little Joy, the Gold Room and El Prado; taco trucks and gourmet food trucks idle curbside; and laughter, shouts and the occasional breaking of glass can be heard in the apartments above the street.

Ten years ago this bit of road was a no-man’s land at night — at least for the kind of hip party people that now consider the area their stamping ground. Once a largely working-class Latino neighborhood, Echo Park is now home to one of L.A.’s most densely packed night-life corridors, with more than 15 popular bars, clubs and restaurants drawing crowds each weekend and often on weeknights too.

Changes to the area have reached a tipping point in the last two years as a new wave of upscale destinations opened their doors to the area’s ever-increasing population of artists, musicians and loafers.

“Maybe in the summer of 2008 or 2009, I was thinking, ‘This is going to be the last summer where it’s sort of lawless,'” says Liz Garo, who books the area’s popular live music venues the Echo and the Echoplex and co-owns the independent bookshop and cafe Stories just down the street. “A few years ago, it was the playground that nobody was noticing, and I think that in the last two years people are starting to take it more seriously.”

Serious, indeed: The neighborhood’s most anticipated opening is a 10,000-square-foot bar and restaurant named Mohawk Bend that is slated to open in February and occupies the nearly 100-year-old movie theater across the street from Nicole Daddio’s cozy wine bar City Sip.

The space, which includes a large bar, a front patio and a room for private parties, is being built out by Kristopher Keith — who has designed many of Hollywood’s hottest nightclubs and bars — and owned by Tony Yanow, who recently opened a bustling Burbank beer-and-sausage pub called Tony’s Darts Away. It will have 73 California craft beers on tap as well as a large variety of California wines and California craft spirits. Just a few years ago, a monster bar like Mohawk Bend would have been thought unsustainable for the area.

Yanow experienced some pushback from residents concerned that more alcohol would degrade the area and bring in an unsavory crowd. Elizabeth Fischbach experienced similar resistance when she opened a low-key beer-and-wine bar called 1642 on the edge of the party scene just south of Echo Park Lake earlier this year.

But as more and more places plot plans to open — including a craft beer store called the Sunset Beer Co. that hopes to stock as many as 1,000 bottles of beer and operate a tasting room, and is run by the couple who own Eagle Rock’s Colorado Wine Co. — the protests have become less vociferous.

“We’ve gone from residents and neighborhood groups trying to close down bars due to narcotics, prostitution and shootings to the chamber of commerce and the neighborhood council endorsing more alcohol establishments,” says Jesus Sanchez, a resident of Echo Park for nearly 20 years and the author of a comprehensive and well-regarded neighborhood blog called “Eastsider L.A.”

Yanow, who says he has received a lot of support for Mohawk Bend, thinks that may be because “people who like to lurk in dark corners don’t like to lurk in places where there are thriving businesses.”

Sanchez agrees but also points out that the Latino character of the neighborhood is slowly being changed. “I never thought prices would rise so high,” he says, adding that when the Starbucks opened in Lucy’s Laundromat in the late 1990s, “people were like, ‘Wow, the neighborhood is gentrifying,’ and now you go to Fix and wait 10 minutes for a $4 cup of coffee.”

Still, Sanchez remembers a time in the ’90s when he ran a gallery on Echo Park Avenue and only scheduled openings for the afternoons because “we thought nobody wanted to come to Echo Park at night. Now crime has dropped; it’s been pretty dramatic.

True, says Mike Taix, whose family has owned Taix French Restaurant at Sunset and Park Avenue since 1962. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the neighborhood experienced a degradation of sorts. Everything began to close up earlier and earlier at night. We began to see a turnaround in the early 2000s. Nowadays we’re often busier at 11 o’clock at night than we are at 7 p.m…. It’s a drastic difference from a few years ago.”

Taix, along with many others, traces the initial change to December 2000, when the Rampart Division cop bar called the Short Stop was bought by a cool group of young investors including rock ‘n’ roll royal Greg Dulli, the frontman of the indie band the Afghan Whigs.

Dulli and his friends shot pool at the Short Stop before they bought it, so they knew very well what kind of cultural shift they were about to introduce.

“We weren’t going to be a cop bar anymore,” Dulli says. ” Garth Brooks is not going to be on the jukebox anymore. The foosball tables are leaving too, and electric darts — what were you thinking? But if you’re cool with Johnny Jenkins and Black Flag on the jukebox, you’ll be fine.”

Dulli and company’s timing was perfect; they opened with a finger-meet-pulse concept just as the starving-artist types were being priced out of Silver Lake and migrating east.

“To this day I’m confused about what exactly a hipster is, but I’m sure we’ve served a few based on our sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon,” says Dulli, who grew up in Ohio watching his grandmother drink Pabst on the rocks.

A few years after the Short Stop opened, the Latino dive bar called the Little Joy became the province of all things hip, and the Gold Room, Barragan’s and El Prado, also working-class Latino bars, succumbed to the thirst of the New Wave masses.

By January 2009, when a friendly, upscale (for the neighborhood) restaurant and bar called Allston Yacht Club opened next to the House of Spirits with a menu of small plates and an inventive mixology program, it seemed to many people that Echo Park had finally become a capital “D” destination: a mini-Sunset Strip East.

“I thought years ago that some day this strip will become pedestrian friendly and people will feel comfortable walking from the Echo to the Short Stop,” says Short Stop manager Terril Johnson. “And now they do.”

jessica.gelt@latimes.com Los Angeles Times