The first time I visited Los Angeles's hippest club and cigar bar, I thought it could have been a place I‘d heard about from Stefon, Saturday Night Live's uber-trendy human about town.
"Located in an abandoned whitefish factory in Little Israel..."
In truth La Descarga, which in this context means "the unloading," or letting go in Spanish, is a two-story, very small nightclub in an area of Hollywood just north of Koreatown that would hardly seem to qualify as a destination. Still, as I waited to give my name at the door, a young man and three pretty women in very tight dresses sought to talk their way in. The doorman politely informed that no one gets in without a reservation or identification.
"Isn't there anything I can do?" the young man pleaded, having made a promise he won't be able to keep that night.
I am warmly greeted and instructed to ascend a flight of stairs where I will be met in a makeshift office. A young lady instructs me to walk through a closet in which a few shirts are hanging and proceed down the catwalk to the spiral staircase into the main bar/dance floor.
The idea here, I gather, is that I've entered a sort of speakeasy scene right out of Havana. A night of forbidden, dare one say anti-revolutionary, pleasure. Care must be taken. The walls are distressed, as if they, like the real buildings in Habana Vieja, required the attention of a Sherwin-Williams franchise. The music is certainly appropriate.
Of course, the illusion of forbidden anything breaks down quickly when you see the well-stocked bar and when you walk into the second bar and note that the ceiling is open to the night sky. Since this second bar is technically not enclosed, cigars can be smoked here, taking care of one generally forbidden thing in much of California.
La Descarga's owners, well-known nightclub entrepreneur twins Mark and Johnny Houston, have nailed the blend of show, drink and smoke here. Exclusivity is maintained by requiring guests with reserved tables on show nights (Thursday through Saturday) to order bottle service, steeply priced at a minimum of $225 for Bacardi with all the mixers.
The beverage menu features special drinks and a lot of rum (I counted 57) from different countries. (There's a "Tiki Tuesdays" menu that seems out of place at any bar not named Trader Vic's.) Nothing from Cuba, of course. My favorites are on the list, but on this night, Joe Swifka, the manager, brings a flight of rums from Martinique. Then another flight selected by style.
All the while, Bob Payne, the maker of the only cigar line sold at the club, is giving me different sizes to try. These Payne and Mason Cigars are new to me and they are well made, generally medium-bodied smokes. The cigars on the menu range from $15 for a robusto to $25 for a full-bodied double corona. You're welcome to bring your own cigars.
As is the case with any club in L.A., people watching is a great amusement, but the biggest attraction at La Descarga is the music. The house band starts playing around 10 p.m. and immediately gets the dance floor moving. On the night I was there, three dancers showcased their talents on the aforementioned catwalk. One of them incorporates fire eating into her number. When the next performer takes the stage, Johnny Houston tells me, "Her name is Dakota."
"Of course it is," I respond, as Dakota basically dances with the wall. Victor Cruz wishes he had these moves.
The challenges presented by La Descarga are few, but significant. Men are "encouraged" not to wear a shirt without a collar, so get your guayabera on. The place is small, maybe "officially" holding about 120 guests. Get there early or expect to wait. The best, and most crowded, nights are Thursday through Saturday.
Hearing a conversation is another difficulty, but not so much if you go intending to enjoy the music. And a cigar. And a rum from Venezuela. Then another cigar. Then a rum from Nicaragua. Then...you get the idea.
1159 N Western Ave
Hollywood, CA 90029
Tuesday to Saturday: 8 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Bottle Service: Tables are reserved with bottle service Thursday through Saturday (the same days as the shows). Minimums are a bit lighter on Thursday. Friday and Saturday is about one bottle per five people seated.