Houston Brothers

by Andrew Stark

Shiny Shirts, Shorts, Sports Gear, Logos, Flip Flops, Most Hats And Loud Colors Are Highly Discouraged.
Mark and Jonnie Houston can hold their liquor. “We’re professional drinkers,” they say. Had Ryan and I known this, we would’ve prepared—gorged on pasta, popped half a bottle of milk thistle, gotten blood transfusions, anything. Instead, Ryan scarfed two handfuls of Cap’n Crunch before leaving his apartment, and I drank a beer.

It’s about 8:30 p.m., and we head over to Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, the Houston brothers’ homage to their late father, David Wayne Houston (“Known by his friends (and the ladies) as Davey,” so says the bar’s website). The place is laid-back and throwback, designed after the Houston’s own childhood home—there’s the DJ booth fashioned out of an old-school console television set, the burl wood coffee table with its amoeba glass top flanked by twin upholstered sofas, a “Monte Carlo” pinball machine up by the bar. It’s like hanging out at your grandma’s house, if your grandma was awesome.

We arrive—entering off El Centro, through a refrigerator—and head to the bar. We’re supposed to meet Mark and Jonnie at 9:00 p.m., but we’re a little early so we order bourbons on the rocks. After
a while, the following text message exchange takes place:

9:13 p.m.—Mark: This is Mark Houston. Are you guys at Good Times? Ryan: Hey man we’re at the bar. Tall guys. 9:19 p.m.—Mark: See you soon. 9:41 p.m.—Mark: Apologize I will see you soon. 5 min away.

Fifteen minutes later, Mark shows up. A few minutes after that, Jonnie.We exchange the obligatory hellos and handshakes and back slaps, the mammalian behaviors of men meeting in bars. Our first impression is that the Houston brothers are breezy, charming, skilled communicators. Similarly, our last impression (at around 2:00 a.m.) is that these are two of the most enjoyable guys in L.A.

More bourbons are ordered, and we head outside, to the backyard patio area.

“I feel like all the bars we have,” Mark says, “they offer a unique experience. Once you enter through that special entrance, you leave all your worries and all that shit behind, and you just unwind and have a good time.”

“We could be at a fucking backyard party in the Midwest right now,” I say, the bourbon taking hold.

“But it never becomes kitschy,” Ryan says.

Jonnie appears with a round of Eric B Goodes—Elijah Craig 12-year bourbon, sage-infused Alvear Amontillado sherry, fresh blackberries, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s Bitters. The drink menus at each of their bars, the brothers tell us, are tailored to fit that specific bar’s aesthetic. At Good Times, for example, you’ll find the Cisco Kid, the Smoke On the Water, the Tiny Dancer. You’ll find The Regal Beagle and the Fuzzy Britches. The food menu includes Spicy Korean BBQ Ribs with “KFC Slaw.” These guys get it, and, despite having grown up in L.A., they’re equipped with the mystical powers to tap into our collective Midwestern or Middle-American nostalgias. The Houston brothers take your typical night out—getting shitfaced, floundering to hook up, pawing your way around the dance floor—and turn it into a romantic experience.

“This was a house, man,” Jonnie says. “Before that it was a little dive bar running illegally. We were thinking we’ll just take this little bar—it took us two and a half years to go through the process. Eric Garcetti, before he was mayor, backed us up.”

A roller-skating dance duo takes to the rooftop stage, commanding everybody’s attention. They’re engaged in an impressive and death-defying disco number, and part of me fears the guy might lose grip on the girl, sending her crashing into a rack of #1 Dad coffee mugs.

More drinks appear. I lament skipping dinner.

 

Going into this process, Andrew and I weren’t sure what to expect. Would the Houston brothers, of Houston Hospitality, be hospitable? Would they be tanned L.A. parasites? Oh god, what if they don’t even drink? Despite our alarmist concerns, the soothsaying Thai-American brothers put any fears to rest quickly. By the end of our tenure in Davey Wayne’s we’re glassy-eyed, stiff-legged, and need to scratch the itch of wanderlust—commanding an Uber to our location, we safely make our way to somewhat-adjoined bars No Vacancy and Dirty Laundry.

Something to note before moving forward: All of the Houston brothers’ bars are within a few square miles of Hollywood. I ask Mark why this is the case, and he explains, “I think it’s closer to home, and one thing I hate about L.A. is sitting in traffic for two hours. So opening up a bar in Santa Monica or another part of the city…it just doesn’t make sense. We’re so hands-on—we’re at our places almost every night—that we want to bounce around and entertain and make sure our people are entertained.”

Crevassed between Hollywood Blvd., U.S.A. and N. Hudson Ave. are the unassuming twin bars. First: Dirty Laundry. Heading down the long staircase after the brothers exchange hellos with the doormen, I can’t help but think I’m being led into something illegal. Some say that L.A. is special, in that it can look like any American city—depending on where you’re looking. As I’m looking around Dirty Laundry, I feel like I’m in a prohibition-era Bronx lair, or the side-business of a fat cat banker in the ’40s, an invite-only den of iniquity.

“Have you guys been to the back?” Mark says.

“We’ve never been here at all,” Andrew and I explain, and we seemingly have to play catch-up.

Dirty Laundry has low brick ceilings, with subtle arches through the L-shaped walkway, sandwiched between the bar and the seating. It’s dusty, it’s cool to the touch, and certainly maintains an indefinable aesthetic [or perhaps our soggy brains were tripping up in details at this point]. We head to the back, a long corridor where a psychedelic jamboree is taking place, wah-wahs and writhing limbs on stage. I look at Andrew and we both silently concur we’re not nearly lubricated enough. Enter: the High Desert, a barley-infused rye whiskey, sarsaparilla, bitters, absinthe rinse, and orange zest, set to a flame halfway through the drink-making process.

We take our newly found handclasps and slip through a wooden side door. Lights flicker on and we’ve entered another bar the brothers have yet to open, a Thai-inspired opium-den swillery. [Editor’s note: Mark and Jonnie tell a gripping story of smuggling opium pipes back from Thailand with the help of their mother and aunt, aided by packing the putrid durian fruit around the pipes to throw off the TSA dogs.]

“So when you walk in, there will be a naked woman laying here and another woman will be giving her a massage,” says Mark. “Try to move one of these marble foo dogs,” he continues. I press my leg against the guarding creature, moving it slightly to which Mark congratulates. Every inch of the bars we’ve visited thus far maintain a balance of quality and aesthetic. Every piece has a genuine informational remark from one of the brothers, as if they’d positioned with their own hands the ‘spiders in bell jars’ right next to an old, worn edition of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s crystal clear these two men never lack vision, and they even have a prophetic quality to their explanations. You want to believe them.

 

When I was a kid, I could drink anything—Bacardi 151, Everclear, pruno—and still watch the sunrise while the last of the bonfire embers died down. But, these days, my stamina has worn thin, eroded by years of drinking anything, and, as Ryan and I climb the steps out of Dirty Laundry and head around the corner to No Vacancy, led by the inexhaustible Mark Houston, I’m thinking, “I live a block from here—I could make a break for it. Sorry, Ryan, every man for himself.” But, thankfully, I pray to the stars, to inversion layers in the atmosphere, all the natural watercourses and sluices that feed the earth, hoping they might spot me a little energy, bankroll me some magical amoebic power to press on.

In other words, I’m snockered and I want to go to bed.

But, Mark Houston at the helm of this adventure, I’m snake-charmed up the Kubrickian staircase of No Vacancy (you enter through a bedroom, where the lingerie-clad lady of the house lets you pass through a secret entrance in the floor) and I’m handed three drinks at once.

“How long does she have to stay up there?” I ask Mark. “Who?” “The girl in the lingerie.” “She sleeps over,” he says. “We don’t let her leave.” And for a moment I believe him, picture Mark or Jonnie running up there after last call and feeding her a rosemary-infused nightcap.

The rest of the night can best be described as “selective.”

More drinks are ordered, and they’re amazing. The bartender in the back patio area is described by Jonnie Houston as “a fucking wizard.” The Houston brothers are almost constantly being hugged and glad-handed by waves of enthusiastic friends. Jonnie whisks Ryan and I upstairs to some private party area, and we stand out on the balcony, looking beyond the tightrope (yes, tightrope) at the glittering skyline.

“My brother and I know this is the last business we ever wanted to be in,” Jonnie tells us, “because our experience growing up with it kind of made us hate it. Our aunt owned strip clubs and our other aunt owned Thai restaurants. At nine years old we were peeling shrimp at my aunt’s restaurant.”

“Then what made you guys want to open a bar in the first place?” Ryan asks.

“We wanted to create a social environment where we could meet each other and talk. There are so many nightclubs where you can’t even talk. You go into a nightclub and you feel weird just standing—you need a table, you need a bottle, you need hot girls, you need a fucking sparkler. We wanted a place where you could also take a date, something more relaxing, like a dive bar.”

(Mark and Jonnie Houston’s Rules for a Dive Bar: 1. Dirty 2. Cash only 3. Pour with handles 4. Tile pieces have to be missing from the bathroom and it has to smell like piss three feet before you walk in. “All said and done, you meet the most interesting people. They aren’t modeling or acting—they’re real people.”)

I find myself shoehorned beside Jonnie Houston in the backseat of an Uber, Ryan passing me a cigarette over some girl’s head, and we’re barreling down Hollywood Boulevard, back to Good Times at Davey Wayne’s.

From this point forward, it wouldn’t be fair to try and recount the proceedings in any accurate fashion. The place is packed, the living room/dance floor pulsing to Michael Jackson and Dire Straits (at one point, I watch Ryan belt out “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety). Whenever Johnnie finds Ryan and I in the crowd, he hugs us and screams, “I fuckin’ love you guys!” But the rest melts into something intangible, a slapdash photomosaic of color and sound, a blurred scrapbook of a warm Thursday night in Los Angeles.

I do know one thing: Mark and Jonnie Houston take fun very seriously. And if David Wayne, “a professional drinker” in his own right, could see the brothers in their element (Jonnie appears behind the DJ booth, orchestrating a light show along with the riffs of some classic rock jam), witness their limitless gusto and good nature, their attention to detail and passion for their craft, he, too, would raise a glass. Cheers.

 

Photographer: Mario Kroes. Stylist: Jimi Urquiaga for OpusBeauty.com. Groomer: Vanessa Price for TheRexAgency.com.