DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Ricki Kline, the designer of seven Downtown bars including Seven Grand, the Varnish, Cole's and Las Perlas, has all the skills one would expect in a nightlife interiors expert. He has a background in carpentry and a Rolodex full of specialty craftsmen that can make the accessories he can't find or fabricate himself.
It's his devotion to a common ritual, however, that Kline believes sets him apart. Quite simply, the guy drinks.
In his blue-collar uniform of worn jeans and black T-shirt, the stubble-faced Kline, 65, is at home on a barstool. Just don't expect to find him nursing a bottle of domestic light beer. Kline, the exclusive designer for 213 Ventures, the company behind a batch of Downtown watering holes that take cocktail culture very seriously, sips the good stuff.
"We're bar people," said Kline, referring also to his business partner for the past year, Kellie Patry.
On a recent weeknight at the Varnish, 213's minimalist, pre-Prohibition-esque cavern of dark wood and subway tile in the basement of the Pacific Electric Building, Kline ordered his regular drink, a "perfect Manhattan." The pool of glistening whiskey, accented with a sliver of lemon peel, swayed in his vintage-style champagne coupe glass. Somehow, the dainty stem seemed natural in Kline's meaty, roughened paw.
As he leaned into the bar, chatting with a friendly pair of young women, his elbows sunk easily into a leather-wrapped cushion pad. The dark green pad, about eight inches deep, yields to a stainless steel bar top. The transition from comfy elbow rest to slick, cold surface, Kline said, is an intentionally stark division. Unlike Seven Grand's thick, solid walnut bartop, which barflies use as an indefinite elbow stool as they savor, say, a neat 12-year-old Van Winkle, the Varnish bar is the centerpiece of an untouchable, sterile cocktail lab.
"Seven Grand is all about the product," said Kline, who then motioned to the Varnish bartender for a refill. The 30-something man behind the counter, wrapped snugly in a bespoke herringbone vest and flanked by beakers of fruit juice, whittled away the perfect, single ice cube for Kline's next libation.
"This bar," Kline said, "is all about the process."
The slick Varnish, which in 2010 won the American Institute of Architects' People's Choice award for best bar design, is emblematic of an evolving partnership between Kline and http://www.ladowntownnews.com/articles/2008/01/28/news/news01.txt" target="_blank">213 founder Cedd Moses.
Kline, a New York native, majored in English at NYU and, after getting fired from "all the bookstores in New York City," took a cabinet-making apprenticeship. When he jumped coasts to San Francisco, he settled in as a union carpenter, working mostly on big commercial and public jobs, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. He moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to make furniture and start his own construction company. In the next decade he built art studios in Venice for the likes of Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses, bar impresario Cedd's father.
If Kline considers his experience as a bar patron to be his most valuable asset, his clients prize his work as a builder.
"He has a construction background so you get a guy who thinks as a contractor," said Will Shamlian, who in the late 1990s hired Kline to design and build Daddy's, a quick-success Hollywood bar that shuttered when the city took over its block of Vine Street for a commercial development. "He can move walls. He thinks that way. He doesn't just re-skin it. He can do a floor plan."
When Moses was still working as a hedge fund manager, he hired Kline to remodel his office suites at California Plaza. Kline trucked down a slab of walnut from a small miller in Gilroy to make Moses a conference table. It now functions as the bar-top at Seven Grand.
Kline and Moses' first Downtown bar collaboration, in 2004, was the Golden Gopher, a sort of rock and roll hangout tucked in a poorly lit block of Eighth Street. It was a hit, crowds flocking even though the adjacent Lindy Hotel was a notorious vice den and most of the other ground level spaces were vacant.
Inside, patrons sit on mahogany leather stools, lounge against wood paneled walls and take in a back bar where bottles are assembled under a quartet of tall windows. There's nothing to view through the windows except a wall of faded bricks, a reminder, perhaps, that this is an old room.
Next came Broadway Bar, in 2005, which Kline said reminds him of a supper club, without the supper. It's also one of the few places where Kline tried something that he readily admits didn't necessarily work. The watering hole on Broadway between Eighth and Ninth streets is defined by its circular bar, a clever novelty to some, but somewhat of a visual dilemma for interior aesthetes. The shape crowds the back bar, Kline acknowledges, and it allows patrons to see into the equipment on the other side of the circle.
So why not rip it out and install a linear bar? The answer gets at one of Kline's core principles: Successful design, he believes, goes hand in hand with action at the cash register.
"Broadway Bar is one of 213's most successful bars and the people who go there are loyal," he said. "Why would you even want to change it?"
Travels With Cedd
From concept to hard design, with final drawings ready for construction, the process of sculpting a 213 bar takes about five months, Kline said. Each takes about two years to open, and the costs figure prominently.
"Budget is crucial," Kline said. "When you're doing this work you've got to understand going in that the money's got to come back. It's a serious investment and the money has to be spent carefully."
The design starts with a loose, basic concept from Moses, who usually has one element firmly settled when he brings it to Kline: the drink menu. Moses says his business model is product-driven, so his designs try to respect function. The interiors should succeed first and foremost at showcasing the products and catering to an experience that evolves around each bar's liquid spirit.
Moses and Kline research the drink that will be featured most prominently behind the bar. For Seven Grand, the whiskey Mecca that opened in 2007 and has become perhaps the most widely recognized of the 213 empire (Moses is in the process of opening additional Seven Grand outposts at LAX and in San Diego), the design came straight from the source. The two went on a drinking trip to Bourbon Fest in Bardstown, Kentucky. Then they tacked on a United Kingdom jaunt with stops in London and Dublin.
"Every bar is a different concept but they have continuity in that our goal is to create a design that's timeless and fresh," Moses said. Referring to the high-end sushi chain designed by Philippe Starck, he added, "Most designers design stuff that's too trendy. Stuff like Katsuya, for example, looks very dated where it looked fresh a few years ago."
Seven Grand is a wood-heavy room that's layered in subtle plaids and hunting wallpaper. Stag heads, a pub design staple from the UK to middle America, are everywhere. They are sculpted on the light fixtures, and a small herd has been stuffed and mounted on the walls.
The room's feel, however, is not all Old English. It's distinctly Downtown Los Angeles, too, Kline said. They preserved elements of the second floor room they inherited from tenants in the Seventh Street building, including Clifton's Cafeteria. Some of the bar's wood panels were present at Clifton's. The exposed brick walls are original.
Staff fashion is also a crucial part of the design, Kline said. The bartenders at Seven Grand (and at most 213 bars) dress smart, sporting combinations of vests, ties and vintage hats that make for a look both period and ageless. There's a certain sense that a bartender at Seven Grand, Cole's or the Varnish could be pouring a drink for Mickey Cohen, or one of the cops on his trail.
For inspiration for Las Perlas, the Sixth Street spot that Moses says is the first mezcal bar in the United States (it's also 213's newest venture), the pair traveled to the spirit's birthplace in Oaxaca. When one trip to an agave farm proved too treacherous for their rented SUV, they walked the last mile, Kline said.
Kline's mélange of new and old, and his eye for authenticity, have won the admiration of Los Angeles hospitality figures such as Ben Ford, an L.A. native who owns and runs Ford's Filling Station in Culver City.
"Their concepts are rooted in some sort of historic sensibility," Ford said. "I love that they're one of the first to bring back classic cocktails. I like the idea of real bartenders. I believe in the trade and the craft and I think these guys are similar in that mind."
About 10 years after Kline signed on to work exclusively for Moses, he appears to be on the cusp of a new chapter. He and business partner Patry are finishing a job in Chicago called Barrelhouse Flat, Kline's first bar design project in a decade not under the 213 umbrella.
"Anything that we do around town or wherever would have to conflict in no way whatsoever with 213," Kline said.
There's more business to do with 213 anyway. Kline and Patry said they are currently at work on three new 213 projects, though the firm declined to comment further. Even as the Downtown nightlife scene has added an array of new concepts in the past year, from sports bars to Hollywood style clubs, Moses believes there's more room for growth.
"We don't think the market is even close to saturated," he said.
As Kline and Patry cast a wider net, the 65-year-old designer will likely be sticking around the neighborhood - he moved to the Historic Core in 2007 - for a while longer. On any given night Kline could be the guy in the middle of the bar, chatting up the bartender, bear hugging old friends, telling stories about what the place used to look like, and making mental notes of tears in the upholstery.
"You do private homes and residences and they always say, ‘Oh you've got to come by for dinner, we love our house so much,' but they never call you back," he said. "You do something in hospitality, you get to come in any time you want and you get to see other people enjoy your space. That's a treat and a half."
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at email@example.com.
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