What Really Happened With Good Luck Bar's Closure?
Good Luck Bar is closed. A last-ditch petition and a symbolic proclamation by the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council didn't change that. They were never going to.
At first glance, the closure looked like (yet another) case of a big, bad landlord muscling out small, indie business with a surprise eviction. Is that actually what happened? Let's review.
In 2012, a real estate development company bought the plot of land that Good Luck Bar sits on. At the time, the two-story building also housed a janitorial and vacuum supply store, a payday loan business and a private office. (The Vista Theatre, next door, sits on a different plot of land so it isn't directly affected by any of this.)
When Good Luck's lease expired, near the end of 2015, landlord and tenant began negotiating a new lease. That much they both agree on.
That landlord is Brad Conroy of Conroy Commercial Real Estate. His company has sold or leased tons of restaurant and retail spaces around Los Angeles, often in the Beverly Grove neighborhood or on Abbot Kinney in Venice. The old Firestone building currently being revamped (potentially with three restaurants and a microbrewery) at 8th and La Brea, that's a Conroy project.
That tenant is Sean MacPherson, a Malibu-bred hospitality impresario who was involved with several successful spots -- Jones, Swingers, El Carmen, Bar Lubitsch -- before decamping to New York. There, he stepped up to the more lucrative world of hotel development with high-profile revamps of the Marlton, the Jane, the Maritime and the Chelsea Hotel, which has been mired in controversy and landlord turnover for years.
Anyway, back to Los Feliz and Good Luck Bar.
Negotiations between Conroy and MacPherson for a new lease never worked out. Why? Accounts differ.
A representative from Conroy Real Estate told LAist that MacPherson, who now lives in New York, seemed busy with his hotel projects and not that interested in Good Luck Bar. The company declined to make anyone available to speak on the record about what took place.
MacPherson, for his part, called that characterization: 100% untrue." He spoke to LAist last week, before the final, final call.
"I love Good Luck Bar," he said "Obviously, I want to keep it open. There'd be no reason for me to want to close it randomly after 25 years."
SO WHAT WENT AWRY?
According to the Conroy representative, after negotiations began four years ago, the two parties had actually come to terms financially and agreed to rent of $3,200 per month.
But there was a major sticking point over planned construction of the 17-room boutique hotel, according to the Conroy rep. The bar was concerned that the buildout would cause hassles, noise and parking problems. Would it impede access to the Good Luck Bar?
The company contends that when they couldn't guarantee those problems wouldn't happen, talks broke down.
MacPherson also disputes that.
"I don't believe that's correct," he says. "I wanted to and continue to want to maintain my business there. I have a lot of leases. I've managed to renew all of them over decades. I was not able to do it at the Good Luck Bar. Ultimately, a tenant without a lease has zero control over the situation. The only one who can decide what a sticking point is is the landlord."
But in this case, MacPherson had leverage -- the liquor license.
To understand why, we need to take a little detour.
L.A. LIQUOR PICKERS
Anyone in Los Angeles who has ever opened an establishment that serves or sells alcohol knows what a nightmare the permitting can be. For those not in the hospitality industry, here's the shorthand: United States liquor laws are a state-by-state patchwork of crazy, outdated regulations often stretching back to Prohibition. In California, the process is overseen by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The agency caps the number of alcohol licenses based on the population of an area so they can be tough to get. When an L.A. restaurant or bar changes hands, the most valuable part of that deal is almost always the liquor license.
Although Conroy Real Estate owns the real estate that Good Luck Bar sits on, the venue's liquor license belongs to MacPherson.
For Conroy, a peer-to-peer transfer of Good Luck's liquor license -- for a hefty sum to MacPherson, of course -- would be the best possible outcome. It would likely be cheaper, quicker and easier than applying for a new liquor license. So let's say MacPherson didn't like the terms of the lease he was offered by Conroy, he'd have leverage to push back.
Was this, essentially, a fight about a lucrative liquor license? MacPherson says no: "It [the liquor license] wasn't a source of negotiation because there was no negotiation."
He also says, "Roughly five years, ago we were in negotiations to extend the lease. Then, Conroy decided not to extend the lease, and he said he would get back to us at some later date. He never got back to us and he sent us the eviction notice."
Whatever happened, a new lease was never signed, so it wasn't a complete shocker when an eviction notice showed up at Good Luck Bar in April 2019.
"We knew that our lease was expired," MacPherson says. "We've been operating it on sort of a day-to-day basis for a number of years. We were blindsided only in that we received an eviction notice out of the blue. But we were not blindsided in that we knew we didn't have a lease, and we knew that at any given moment we could be evicted."
The bar posted the news on its Instagram account and word spread. A patron started started a petition urging people to let Conroy Real Estate "and our local elected officials know that Good Luck is a beloved member of this community and we want them to stay." The issue made its way to the April 30 meeting of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, where Brad Conroy showed up to make his case. It didn't go well.
That night, the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council passed a resolution withdrawing their support for the project. (You can read the full text of the resolution here.) They asked the city to investigate the development to make sure it was complying with all of its conditions, hold a public hearing and "initiate alcohol revocation proceedings." (Never mind that the project had no alcohol license to revoke.)
The resolution also states that when the Council approved the project, on March 18, 2014, they were "assured that Good Luck Bar... would remain." According to the resolution...
"The fundamentals of the project proposed initially have clearly changed. The community has not been consulted about these changes. The promises the developed made during their initial proposal have not been kept."
Even if the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council's resolution had been accurate, it was toothless. The council has no power to compel city officials to follow this resolution. And that brings us to the larger issue, the current wave of development washing over the neighborhood.
Anyone paying attention knows Los Feliz has been gentrifying for the last two decades. If anything, places like Good Luck Bar (it's not a dive bar) were harbingers of the 'hood's upscaling.
Half-a-mile west on Hollywood Blvd., the Steve Allen Theater is being replaced by three new housing developments. The intersection of Hillhurst Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, sort of kitty corner to Good Luck Bar, is slated for a massive multi-story, mixed-use complex known as City Lights.
Many residents have hated the project since they first got wind of it. At a June 2015 meeting of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, "locals called the development 'obscene,' 'an abomination' and 'cookie cutter' in design," reports the Los Feliz Ledger. Former city councilman Tom LaBonge even launched a petition to stop City Lights. None of that worked.
Despite vehement objections from neighbors, both of these developments were approved by the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council and later by the L.A. City Council. Even if things had stayed the same, there's the question of whether they should.
Good Luck Bar is often described as looking and feeling like an opium den, or at least a tamer, more commercialized version of one. When it opened in 1994 -- as an homage to defunct Chinatown bar Yee Mee Loo -- maybe MacPherson and the bar's patrons didn't think there was anything weird about this stereotypical representation of Chinese culture. A quarter century later, things have changed.
Just last month, fast-casual restaurant Lucky Lee opened in Greenwich Village. Owned by a white woman, its promotional campaign revolved around disparaging Chinese cuisine as greasy, salty food that makes people "feel bloated and icky the next day" -- unlike Lucky Lee's "clean Chinese" food. That went over like a lead balloon.
Gordon Ramsay was also slammed for the launch of London restaurant Lucky Cat, which was positioned as an "authentic Asian Eating House" inspired by the "drinking dens of 1930s Tokyo."
Last year, Andrew Zimmern set off a controversy when describing his Minneapolis restaurant Lucky Cricket. "I think I'm saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest," he told Fast Company.
Maybe it's not so lucky to open a restaurant or a bar built on the fetishization of Asian culture.
For now, Good Luck Bar is dead and gone with no plans to reopen in its current form or locale. Whatever happens, we only ask one thing: For the love of all Angelenos, please preserve that glorious neon sign.