20 Years Of Akbar, Silver Lake's Gay Bar For Everyone
Back in the early 90s, Scott Craig and Peter Alexander were living in Silver Lake, going to live shows and throwing parties. Their love of punk rock and parties and their desire to create a bar where gay and straight people could party together inspired them to buy a defunct piano bar and transform it into what is now known as Akbar. This year, Akbar turns 20 years old.
Alexander had grown up in Los Angeles. Craig had traveled around as his father was in the Air Force, but mostly grew up in the Bay Area. The two would ultimately come to meet in L.A. in the early 80s where they were both hanging out in L.A.'s punk rock circles. They eventually became a couple and dreamed up the idea of opening a bar together in order to make their own "clubhouse" where they could drink and hang out with their friends. Much has changed in the 20 years since the pair opened Akbar: they're no longer a couple, the neighborhood has gentrified, and our nation's attitude towards gays has changed immensely for the better. But the bar has remained true to its roots, selling cheap, basic drinks and offering a casual space for people from any walk of life to unwind.
In the early '90s, Silver Lake had plenty of gay bars. Alexander said you could have thrown a rock and hit one. The problem was that the bars were not particularly integrated then. You had your gay bars and you had your straight bars. In the punk rock scene Craig and Alexander loved, it wasn't like that.
"Everyone was just on equal footing," Craig said. "They didn't care about your sexuality or sex, or anything."
Alexander said he and Craig spent the 80s at underground clubs, which he called a "pre-rave type of thing." There was the AntiClub, and then the Theoretical Club, which occasionally took place on Sunday afternoons at a leather bar. It was not uncommon to see men in their leather and goth kids hanging out in one place, Craig recalled.
"But in the early 90s, a lot of those [clubs] closed down and a lot of people died," Alexander said, referring to the AIDS epidemic.
It soon occurred to Craig and Alexander that if they wanted a place for their gay and straight friends to hang out together that wasn't their house, they might have to make their own.
Silver Lake was, at that time, a cheaper neighborhood to call home. Many musicians and artists lived and hung out there, including Craig and Alexander. Craig was working in TV commercial production and Alexander was working in motion picture advertising. A major client of his was Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Alexander worked on all the associated merchandising, and, as Craig said, would have been the guy to arrange for an interview with Homer Simpson, should someone request one.
Silver Lake was also rougher then. Alexander got mugged, and Craig once had to stop a hate crime that he stumbled upon while driving through the neighborhood.
"I also got a knife pulled on me once, but did the smart thing and ran," Craig remembered.
Close calls aside, Craig said he was already noticing L.A. dive bars getting turned into hip clubs. Good Luck Bar, he said, used to be a drag queen bar. Little Joy was once a gay dive. Craig used to go into bars like that and ask the owners if he could come in with a DJ and get his friends to buy their cheap drinks, but they were disappearing. When Craig found out that the piano bar at the intersection of Sunset, Hoover and Fountain was for sale, he suggested to Alexander that they buy it before someone else did.
"I didn't want it to become some kind of velvet rope bar that I couldn't get into," he said.
And, buying that bar meant they could throw those same events at their very own space. As far as they were concerned, if they could break even on the whole thing, that'd be fine. It'd be like having a party where you drank for free, sort of, and paid for someone else to clean the place up.
The bar was called Jolie's 2, as there was another such bar on Western that was presumably the original. Craig and Alexander borrowed money from about two dozen friends and their parents, and took Jolie's 2 off the market. Craig picked up the keys on December 11, 1995. The owner packed up his checkbook and calculator, handed Craig the keys and took off.
They then had to come up with a name. They had been to Crow Bar in New York—"back when the East Village was still shitty," Alexander said—and had a great time. They wanted a name that said "bar" in the title. Not lounge. Not club. A bar: a place where you showed up to drink and have fun. And Craig wanted it to start with an 'a.'
"This was back when you still had phonebooks," he said.
He was calling out names to Alexander like A1 Bar, Acme Bar, and eventually worked his way down the alphabet to Akbar. It is not, as some may have presumed, a misspelled Star Wars reference. Instead, it references Matt Groening's Life in Hell. In the comic, Akbar and Jeff are a couple (confirmed by Groening in a Rolling Stone interview), though they had been described as "brothers or lovers... or possibly both" in the strip at various times. The two characters are identical in appearance and dress, wearing striped shirts and fezzes, and originated when Groening was trying to draw Charlie Brown. The name Akbar was familiar to Alexander and Craig because, as mentioned, Alexander worked for Groening.
According to Alexander, Jolie's 2 looked like "Navajo white and cigarette stains," with vertical blinds, lots of mirrors and hanging fake plants. That, they could not abide. But once they'd settled on the name Akbar, their decor ideas shifted from plans for a quirky-coffeeshop-mismatched-couches-traffic-signs-on-the-wall vibe to rich reds and hand-painted tables, completed for the pair by a friend. Later, another friend painted the two massive portraits of a nude man and a nude woman that hang on the wall opposite the bar. They kept the bar stools—when you slide one up to the bar, you're sitting on a stool that's been in the building longer than even Alexander and Craig. For their interior design efforts, Alexander said one magazine reported that the bar looked like a "cheesy Moroccan airport lounge."
The pair also carefully curated their own jukebox. This is the very same jukebox that still hulks in the bar today, large and analog.
"We were the first gay bar that didn't have disco and divas," Alexander said. "We had rock 'n roll." And punk, of course, the genre that brought the two together in the first place. They had a no-Madonna policy for the first 18 years of their existence, saying you could go hear Madonna anywhere. They only recently amended their Cher policy, but will only stock the vintage hits, Craig said. They have also been known to load the jukebox with local music.
From picking up the keys on December 11, they opened on New Year's Eve. The paint was still wet and they requested guests not sit on certain benches until well into the evening—those were still wet, too.
It was packed that first night, which one might attribute to the holiday, then not so much in the days that followed. But despite their lack of advertising, their clientele grew steadily. They received a writeup in TIME Magazine, and Craig recalled that Los Angeles Magazine once said they were cooler than The Mondrian's Skybar. In 2003, L.A. Magazine chose Akbar as the best gay bar to take a straight friend at night.
"Our motto was originally, 'We're not a gay bar, we're not a straight bar, we're a great bar!'" Alexander said, with a grin that makes it clear he's aware of the slogan's inherent cheesiness.
Soon, the bar began attracting celebrities. You'll find some immortalized in signed portraits hanging on a wall, which Craig calls his "dry cleaners" wall, as even Los Angeles' dry cleaners boast about their famous clientele. Craig said he knew they'd made it when he saw k.d. lang among their guests on a particularly crowded night. They've seen Michael Stipe walk in their door, as well as Minnie Driver. Both men sighed sadly, recalling the times Elliott Smith used to come and drink whiskey and talk to them about the music business before his death in 2003. His iconic wall is only steps away from Akbar's front door.
"After a while, you're not so starstruck by celebrities," Craig said.
"Yeah, 'cause they stop coming," Alexander laughed. "They're onto the next cool bar!"
Not all celebrities have come to the bar to party. One night in 2006, comedian Tim Heidecker ran into the bar after being knifed in the back by his neighbor, who was high on PCP. The neighbor, after stabbing him, continued to chase him down the street. In a recounting of the incident at the NerdMelt showroom, Heidecker recalled he first ran to Tang's Donuts for help, but its solitary employee seemed no match for a knife-wielding assailant. Then he ran over to McDonald's, which was closed.
So, he's still chasing me. I look to my right. There's a gay bar on the corner called Akbar. There's a tremendous amount of, I guess you call them, bears, out front. Large, strapping men smoking cigarettes. And bouncers. A variety of different kinds of men out front. And I run into Akbar, stabbed.
The neighbor followed him, Heidecker collapsed behind the bar, and several staff and customers alike tackled his attacker to the ground. A paramedic student calmed him as he fully realized that he had been stabbed.
You can hear Heidecker tell the tale in its entirety, from his perspective, here:
Craig will point out that Akbar is not a specifically 'bear' bar.
"That night it was deep house music!" he said.
In 2004, the entire building went up for sale. Craig and Alexander decided to buy it, lest someone eventually price them out of the neighborhood. Once they had the building, they busted through the wall of the adjacent clothing store, where a dance floor had been in a previous iteration known as the Silver Dollar Saloon. During this renovation, they found it odd that the pipes they were uncovering were particularly large. They later discovered the upstairs had been a bathhouse called the Silver Saddle, and the pipes were so big because they were supporting steam rooms and other amenities. There is nothing salacious above the bar now, just offices. These offices have, at times, been occupied by musician Jeff Buckley's mother and designer Louis Verdad.
In November of 2008, after Prop. 8 passed and took away the right for gays to marry, they decided to hang a rainbow flag outside their door for the first time. Eight years later, gays across the U.S. may marry, of course, and the flag remains. While all is not well—Craig solemnly pointed to the recent Orlando shooting—Craig said it's nice to live in a time when they're not routinely getting egged or graffiti'd, something that used to happen when certain people found out Akbar was a gay bar.
"It's actually a good shift. You don't see asshole behavior between customers. Straight or gay, men or women, you just don't," Craig said.
Akbar, to this day, remains true to its origin story. It's a gay bar, not a lounge or a club. Anyone can come and feel welcome. You might catch a comedy show, craft night, or a DJ, depending on when you drop by. And despite the mixology bars popping up left and right, Akbar still has its cheap drinks—wells are $6.
"It's nice to just hold down this corner of the neighbor and be here for people," Alexander said.
Let us close with Akbar in their own words, according to their mission statement:
We are AKBAR. We believe in the power of rock and roll. We love guitars. We abhor homophobia. And hetero-phobia. We enjoy a cold beer. We cannot abide a mean drunk. We don't get organized religion. We like disco. We despise racism. We cannot respect disrespectful behavior. We do not condone "velvet ropes." We do not care who is a celebrity and who is not. We love our friends. We can be silly. We do not understand gay Republicans. We wing it. We try to obey traffic laws. We do believe variety is the spice of life. We do not enjoy excessive profanity. Damn it. We think we're Ginger, but we're really Mary Anne. We love a parade. We would like to see Bush and Cheney brought to court. We are AKBAR. Love it or leave it. We can tolerate a happy drunk but not a sloppy drunk. We do not like shrill voices, especially indoors. We are happy to open the door for you. We love a good martini. We sometimes fall down. We admire musicians. We are distrustful of rabid fans. We enjoy a night on the town. We think we all need more exercise. We skinny dip. We LOVE L.A. and we ♥ N.Y. We're partial to scruff. We miss our dearly departed friends and family. We look forward to making new friends and family. We like to travel. We love coming home to AKBAR.
Akbar is located at 4356 W. Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake, (323) 665-6810