DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Vee Delgadillo has an unlikely claim to quasi-fame: She is the queen of the Downtown dive bar scene.

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It’s fitting, in a way. The 37-year-old owns Bar 107 on Fourth Street and the Down and Out on the ground floor of the Alexandria Hotel. The former is known for the red walls hung with a plethora of taxidermied deer heads and velvet paintings. The latter’s design scheme might be called Mug Shot Chic: Along with the TVs showing sports are a batch of framed police pics of O.J. Simpson, Charlie Sheen, James Brown and other celebrities.

“They’re a little bit grungy with salty bartenders,” Delgadillo said of her fascination with dive bars. “There’s no pretention, and you never know who you’re sitting next to: could be a lawyer, could be a convict.”  

While owning those bars has given Delgadillo a steady income, they’re not the extent of her small but growing empire. She is also a partner in Two Bits Market, a deli and convenience store on Fifth Street.

Then there’s her newest venture, and her most mainstream nightspot: the New Orleans-style bar and restaurant The Little Easy. It opened at 216 W. Fifth St. on Feb. 7. 

For Delgadillo, it makes an evolution.

“I was the party girl,” she acknowledged one afternoon last week while sitting at a glass table next to a courtyard-style fountain in Little Easy. “Now I’m a mom of two and consider myself a little wiser and more business-oriented. I think this place is very telling about where I am in my life.” 

It may seem an unlikely life path for Delgadillo, who was born in Mexico City and at the age of 5 came by Greyhound bus to Downtown in 1982 with her parents. The family settled in Highland Park, but came Downtown on Sundays to watch two-for-one movies at Broadway theaters, where the films had Spanish subtitles, and to shop at Grand Central Market for groceries. 

Learning the Business

Delgadillo later moved back to Mexico City with her family, but her brother, who was born deaf in the United States, needed care that they couldn’t afford. The family returned to Los Angeles. Delgadillo said she dropped out of high school and was on her own by the age of 14. 

She later found jobs in the bar business, with stints as a cocktail waitress, server and in management. She ultimately decided she wanted to open a bar and traveled to Chicago to get ideas for a folksy, Midwest-type establishment. With capital from a second mortgage on her home, financing from a private investor and her life savings, she opened Bar 107 in 2005.

At the time, Delgadillo was also skating with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls. At four-feet, nine-inches tall, she was given the nickname “Pocket Rocket” by one of her teammates.

Emboldened by Bar 107’s popularity — she said its current annual revenue exceeds $2 million — she went for a second establishment. In 2009 she purchased the 3,800-square-foot Charlie O’s on the ground floor of the Alexandria Hotel. She teamed with designer Ryan Sanderson, who she met through the Derby Dolls, to transform the then-ragged spot. The Down and Out opened in 2010, and though it recently had another remodel that included new furniture and hardwood floors, Delgadillo makes no pretense that it’s an upscale pub.

“Oh, it’s a dive bar, 100%,” Delgadillo said, laughing. 

Downtown lawyer Tom O’Leary, who lives on Spring Street, has been pulling up a stool at the Down and Out for five years. He described Delgadillo as having “great business intuition” and credits her spots for helping area residents get to know each other. 

“This area has really transformed itself, and business owners like Vee have led the way in investing in the Historic Core,” he said.

The dive bar approach leads to occasional unruly patrons and fisticuffs, and though Delgadillo used to defuse things herself (while in her trademark four-inch heels) she now lets her security guards handle such situations. Still, there are times when the fights spill into the street. 

Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District, said BID security officers have had to respond to some drinks-fueled incidents. However, she lauds Delgadillo for being a single mom who has become a successful businesswoman. 

“She’s definitely found her niche and she knows how to do that niche really well,” Besten said. “Not every place has to have a $15 cocktail. It’s good to keep the diversity in the neighborhood.” 

Southern Feel

Delgadillo opened The Little Easy in the former Gorbals restaurant space, also in the Alexandria Hotel. She once again turned to Sanderson for design guidance. The goal was to replicate both a classic southern hotel lobby as well as a French Quarter courtyard. 

Patrons enter off Fifth Street, where the front bar is decked out with chandeliers, an oversized mirror and Victorian furniture. A zigzagging hallway leads to the back bar with the fountain and walls lined with shutters and distressed windows. The 150-person capacity establishment even has a riser with Victorian-style sofas and a mural advertising a potent alcohol called Herbsaint. 

Delgadillo said the build-out took two months and cost more than $600,0000. Sanderson said the goal is to help patrons feel removed from the Historic Core. 

  “We wanted it to feel like you were somewhere different than Downtown, like the French Quarter at night,” he said. “There’s an open airiness about the design, which is kind of playful, but not like Disneyland.” 

The kitchen is run by Mississippi-born chef Brian Garrigues and specializes in Creole dishes such as shrimp and grits and seafood gumbo. A house specialty cocktail is the Sazerac, a New Orleans cognac or whisky drink mixed with bitters, absinthe and a sugar cube. 

Delgadillo is also part owner of Two Bits Market, a deli with fresh, local and organic produce. She plans to use Little Easy’s kitchen to cook prepared foods to sell at Two Bits, as well as the Down and Out.  

Although The Little Easy is a shift from her role as dive bar queen, Delgadillo still sees it as a laidback place with affordable price points (entrees run $8-$12). She hopes it will continue to attract locals, as well as people from outside of Downtown. 

“I like that these bars have a neighborhood feel,” she said. “Everyone else is going frou-frou with dress codes. I want people to be comfortable. We care about the neighborhood.”

To that end, Delgadillo has her eye on a fourth bar in Downtown. Though she would not reveal the location or specifics, she said she has zeroed in on a space and a concept.

Once Delgadillo’s second son was born (her children are 2 and 3), the family moved to Eagle Rock. She loves Downtown, and has felt connected to it since she was 5, but she said the Central City is more dog-friendly than kid-friendly.

Still, it’s a place where she’s happy to open businesses, even if the businesses come with a bit, or maybe a lot, of grit. 

donna@downtownnews.com

Twitter: @donnadowntown

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015