Viper Room Revamp Trades Notorious 90s Past For Whiskey-Swilling Hipsters

With its dark corners and rock and roll vibe, this dingy Sunset Strip den has earned its place as a symbol of angst and a cave in which the Hollywood elite can find solace. The single-room icon — once home to the likes of Bugsy Siegel and other mobsters — was dubbed the Viper Room in 1993 when co-owners Johnny Depp and Anthony Fox took over.

At its height, it drew the who's who of edgy celebrities: from the Motley Crue's Tommy Lee, to Courtney Love, Quentin Tarantino and Sean Penn. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the club's opening night; Johnny Cash recorded "Tennessee Stud" and "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" live on the Viper Room stage. Johnny Depp occasionally played with his band P, sometimes with Flea of the Red Hot Chili Pepper and the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones.

But the Viper Room is known more for its scandal and tragedy than for the music acts that picked up the guitar and left their hearts on stage. The nightclub was already a well-trekked, rock-filled watering hole when Depp's friend and fellow actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside almost exactly 20 years ago in 1993. It wasn't long until its popularity waned and bands found other places to take their songs.

Depp's ownership of the club came to a close in 2004, when his partner, Fox, went missing. He signed it over to Fox's daughter, and in 2008, the Viper Room was purchased by Harry Morton, son of Hard Rock Café owner Peter Morton. Morton said in the past that he only planned minor changes like cosmetic touch-ups to the building, along with sound and video improvements.

"It's staying what it is. If anything, we're trying to restore it to its heyday," he told Billboard Magazine.

The Viper Room is now celebrating its 20th anniversary with a renovation, hoping that it will put the club back on the map as an "Art House" of the Sunset Strip.

"This place is already synonymous with great music," said Brad Robinson, who runs the club. "It's about a visceral experience for all the senses."

The venue has revamped its spirits, cocktails and space. The downstairs bar now offers top-shelf American whiskeys, bourbons and ryes.

A handful of new art installations — including a mural tribute to Johnny Cash by David Flores and a 3D space-invader-like piece above the DJ booth by Paige Smith — have been added to the space. The seating has been updated with leather tables and a refurbished bar area.

Graffiti artist Vyal painted the green room with a mural of a piercing eye engulfed in fiery oranges, surrounded by waves of purple. It took the artist all of 30 minutes to put the psychedelic piece together. The hallway walls downstairs look like an acid trip; the theme of eyes continues down, with wisps of purple, blue and yellow. It's all purposely evocative of the Illuminati and secret societies, Robinson said.

By the side door outside, artist David Flores has painted a mosaic-like portrait of Johnny Cash. A colorful bird mural spans the entire the back of the building, painted by UGLAR.

But it wasn't always an easy process to bring a new twist to a decades-old piece of history. When the renovations began rolling out in August, loyal Viper Room fans were taken aback, Robinson said.

"They loved the Viper Room for what it was and were resistant to change at first," he said. "It was difficult to convey the importance of the changes to them for a while."

Despite all the paint on the walls and the new bottles of whiskey, Robinson admits there are portions of the past that the institution just can't cover up or shake off. He gets calls — often multiple times a day — asking for Johnny Depp, even though he hasn't been attached to the Viper Room for almost a decade. Sometimes, he gives in and plays the part.

Robinson said he hopes to make the club more current and elevate it to fit modern tastes, in spite of its scandal-ridden history.

"We honor what this place was. You never knew what to expect and you trusted us," he said. "That's what we want to get back."

Related:
Viper Room, 1994: The River Phoenix Wall