How This Historic LA Coffee Shop Turned Into A Gathering Place For The Political Left

Johnie's Coffeeshop, featured in countless movies and music videos, is now a registered historic landmark. Photographed on January 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (James Bernal for LAist)

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The foyer of Johnie's Coffee Shop on Wilshire and Fairfax smells like weed, musk and dog*. A beat-up piano sits next to stacks of flyers from leftist organizations, and the area is guarded, on this particular afternoon, by a brown-and-white canine with a red bandana around his neck who comes jogging up to the door, barking at unknown newcomers.

Inside, the former restaurant is plastered with political signs with slogans like "#CleanDreamAct DACA Strong," "Healthcare is a Human Right" and "#stopcagingfamilies." Once a pinnacle of 1950s Googie architecture, Johnie's took on new life when it played host to a high-profile 2016 event for U.S. Senator and then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

But many Angelenos are wondering what the space is being used for now.

"What is happening to the Johnnie's Coffee shop at Wilshire/Fairfax? Just a Bernie Sanders landmark?" one LAist reader asked.

Details inside of Johnie's Coffeeshop, featured in countless movies and music videos, and now a registered historic landmark. Photographed on January 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (James Bernal for LAist)

You can no longer buy a meal at Johnie's — it closed in 2000 — but the building itself is now operating as a gathering place for over a dozen political and social justice organizations in Los Angeles. The common denominator among them is a loose, good-faith alignment with the philosophical and political ideals of the progressive left.

"The space is available for any way that it can be useful for the movement," says Michelle Manos, one of three co-founders of the nonprofit collective Bernie's Coffee Shop, which operates out of Johnie's Coffee Shop. "Anything that involves a justice focus, a sort of progressive or leftist cause, it's available for free."

Details of the sign of Johnie's Coffeeshop, featured in countless movies and music videos, is now a registered historic landmark. Photographed on January 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (James Bernal for LAist)

Johnie's Coffee Shop was built in 1956 by architects Louis Armet and Eldon Davis, masters of the space-age Googie style. The restaurant came to be known for its striking design and by the 1980s, began making appearances in films like Miracle Mile, The Big Lebowski, American History X, Reservoir Dogs and City of Angels. In 1994, it was purchased by the Gold family, an entrepreneurial L.A. clan whose patriarch, David Gold, founded the 99 Cents Only Stores.

In 2013, Johnie's was designated an historic cultural monument, and for a short while, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority debated turning it into a Metro stop for the purple line.

But any debate over how to use the former eatery came to an abrupt end during the 2016 election cycle. In April of that year, a group of Bernie Sanders supporters disrupted a fundraising dinner for his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. A nearby homeowner held a competing fundraiser for Sanders the same night, sending email invitations that read "Swimming pools, Movie Stars, and merriment for all! This is happening right next door to Clooney's party for Hillary!"

Max, a pet belonging to the Bernie Sanders team who work out of the Johnie's Coffeeshop on January 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (James Bernal for LAist)

That homeowner was Howard Gold, David's son, and it was that night that he linked up with the soon-to-be founders of Bernie's Coffee Shop. (Gold did not respond to LAist's requests for an interview in time for this story.)

In the weeks that followed, the younger Gold expressed an interest in continuing to help the local Sanders effort, says Jeremy White, also a co-founder of Bernie's Coffee Shop.

"He said that he had a couple assets, [Johnie's Coffee Shop] was one of them, and what can we do with it," says White. "It's just sitting here."

Together, the group decided to host an event that would call attention to the Bernie campaign, and turned Johnie's into Bernie's Coffee Shop for one night. They hired an artist to create a mural and plastered the outside of the restaurant with removable stickers and posters. The event was so successful, says Manos, that they decided to keep the collaboration going.

"With the blessing of the Gold family," she says, "we asked and were given permission to continue operating out of the space."

Johnie's Coffeeshop, featured in countless movies and music videos, is now a registered historic landmark. (James Bernal for LAist)

For the remainder of the 2016 campaign season, Bernie activists used the restaurant as a place to make signs, hold phone banks and gather before deploying for political actions.

Through that effort, Manos and her team got to know other leftist groups in the city. Leaders from those organizations began asking if they could use the defunct restaurant as a place to organize their staff, prepare for actions or hold events. As long as their philosophies aligned, says Manos, Bernie's Coffee Shop gladly agreed.

Now, Johnie's Coffee Shop is used by a collective of over a dozen such groups, including Humanity First, Extinction Rebellion, Revolution L.A., Yellow Vest L.A., the Democratic Socialists of Los Angeles, Me Too March International, California for Progress and of course, Bernie Sanders Brigade. Hammell operates a Google doc that organizes who is using the space and at what time.

The Gold family effectively operates as a landlord, giving the group free reign to hold whatever events and hosting whichever organizations they see fit, Manos says.

Occasionally, the collective has to turn someone down. When California State Senator Kevin de León made a bid for the U.S. Senate, his team reached out to see if they could hold a meet-and-greet at Johnie's. The Bernie's Coffee Shop team discussed it, says Manos, and ultimately said no.

"The Bernie movement was very divided on KDL, and we decided not to move ahead with his event," she says. "It didn't feel like something that we were enough aligned on as a team."

Outside Johnie's, posters and flyers are still taped to just about every window. The same holds true inside; every available wall space, it seems, is covered with a political sticker or sign. But other than the art, says Manos, the Bernie's Coffee Shop collective has tried to keep the space as close to its original design as possible. The diner counter is lined with burnt-orange swivel seats. White and orange leather booths still form an L-shape throughout the space. An out-of-commission soda fountain sits behind the counter, along with empty metal food bins.

Details inside of Johnie's Coffeeshop, featured in countless movies and music videos, and now a registered historic landmark. (James Bernal for LAist)

Right now, the collective is waiting on a big announcement that will determine what the next year and a half holds for them: whether or not Sanders will announce a run for president in 2020.

Rumors are rampant, but Manos speaks with a kind of insider certainty.

"It's very hard to predict," she says carefully, "but yes, we — many of us are expecting the announcement with almost a hundred percent certainty."

Meanwhile, the coffee shop still draws the curious. Within moments of my arrival, an elderly woman pushed open the front doors, stooping over and trailing a suitcase behind her.

"What happened to Bernie?" she says, looking adoringly at a cutout of the defeated presidential candidate that stands by the entrance.

Manos smiles and answers.

"He's still fighting for us," she says.

*LAist cannot confirm the origin of any of these scents.

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