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How to Find Your Local Bar, Anywhere

Why is it that the places we root ourselves to when we’re in an unfamiliar town so often take the shape of a bar? Jamie Feldmar on finding your local far from home.

The best person I met in LA was the fifty-something woman with the Grateful Dead dancing bears tattooed on her hand at a K-Town dive called the HMS Bounty. The Bounty is located in the ground floor of an apartment complex called the Gaylord, which was considered rather glamorous when it was built in 1924 but today it shows its age with Olde English-style neon signage and sagging floral print furniture. The Deadhead lady lived in the building and came downstairs so often that she’d taken to furnishing the jukebox with her own CDs.

She was clearly a regular at the sort of bar that practically demanded routine commitment. I loved the nautical tchotchkes and the deep leather banquettes at HMS, the cheap drinks and the antique cash register the bartender, Annie, rang them up on. My affection deepened when I learned of its storied past (more on that in a minute). But how much of a regular could I truly be if my home was in New York, and my time in LA—a means to escape the winter—would last just shy of six weeks? It’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly when I’m on the road, often by myself, and aching for the comfort of a local in which to hang my head.

“I realize it might sound silly to some people, but I love returning to places I know well when I travel, because I love being a regular,” says Rosie Schaap, a journalist and the author of Drinking With Men: A Memoir. Schaap has traveled extensively in Ireland, often for long periods of time, and she’s partial to a Dublin pub called Grogans Castle Lounge (or sometimes Grogan’s—the apostrophe is subject to some debate) that has served as her unofficial home base for more than 20 years.

“I feel the same thing [at Grogans] that I feel at bars where I’m a regular at home,” she says. “I do feel a little tension between wanting to discover new things and seeking out the places that feel familiar, but to me, it’s a deeper pleasure to return to the same spots and linger.”

Schaap is well-versed in the history of her home-away-from-home bar, and I, too, became intrigued with the background of the Bounty after my first visit. The bar-restaurant on the ground floor of the apartment building was founded in 1948 as “The Gay Room” in honor of developer and socialite Henry Gaylord Wilshire (for whom Wilshire Boulevard is also named); in the following decade, it became popular with members of the Hollywood and political elite, like Winston Churchill, Jack Webb and William Randolph Hearst.

In 1962, after a few name changes, it morphed into the HMS Bounty, and, if this long-winded but fascinating account from the original owner’s son is to be believed (the current owner was not available for comment), it became known as a power lunch destination and pick-up spot for the many single ladies who had moved into newly constructed apartments nearby. By the 1990s, the bar had fallen into a state of mild disrepair but retained a loyal older crowd that, in recent years, has mixed with local hipsters to create something of a renaissance, albeit a low-key one.

I went to the Bounty about once a week during my stint as a transient Angelino. Like a true regular, my visits weren’t strictly scheduled, but rather a function of convenience and mood. I suggested it as a destination when friends asked to meet, and I went alone when I found myself in the neighborhood without set plans. It was a place where I could feel reliably grounded, even if I knew my tenure there would be short-lived.

Gail Simmons, the food writer and television personality who often spends weeks at a time camped out in one city while shooting Top Chef, told me she could relate. “In every city, we find the places we like the most, and we end up returning to them,” she says, cheerfully describing herself as a “barfly” who enjoys the convivial aspect of settling in to a bar, either with her TV crew or when traveling solo, as she often does. “When we were shooting our last season, in Charleston, the bar at The Ordinary became our local,” she says. “And just when [chef and owner] Mike Lata started to get pleasantly sick of us, we left.”

Why is it that the places we root ourselves to when we’re in an unfamiliar place so often take the shape of a bar? Bars reflect their surroundings—camping out in one, especially the same one multiple times, is an easy way to take the temperature of a place, to get to know its particular people and customs. It’s also a way to establish familiarity when you feel like a stranger, which carries with it an element of fantasy: As I returned to the Bounty week after week, I entertained a vision of what my life might be like if it were my true local.

“To travel is to get away from things and try something new, but we all like a sense of routine,” says Brad Thomas Parsons, journalist and author of Amaro and Bitters. “Having that when you’re in a different place can make you feel grounded and happy, and bars are a natural environment for creating that sensation.” Parsons recalls becoming attached to Bar Basso during a research trip to Italy, a country whose language he does not speak but whose drinking customs he was attempting to understand for his book.

“Bars are natural gathering places, and settling in at one is such an elemental way to get to know a city. In Italy, I spent a lot of time sitting in bars to simply observe,” he says. When Parsons returned to Milan last year, armed with a deeper understanding of its drinking culture, he again visited Bar Basso, this time with two actual Milan locals in tow. “They’d never been, and I insisted on taking them there,” he says. In a neat twist of fate, “they’ve now become regulars themselves.”

I remember one of my final nights at the Bounty, flipping through the jukebox while nursing a cheap whiskey and Coke and admiring the clientele: cranky old-timers silently sucking their beers, fresh-faced twenty-somethings marveling at the black-and-white photos of bygone celebs and the Deadhead lady, who was happy to chat with anyone who’d listen. A perfect cross-section of Angelinos, I thought, as I allowed myself a few minutes to daydream about joining them permanently. When my song ended, the Deadhead lady smiled at me as she punched in the numbers for her Billy Joel record and went back to her well-worn stool, and called Annie over to fix her another round.

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