by Alex Palmer
One block west from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine the Hotel Cafe’s red neon sign perpetually reads “Vacancy”, but there are plenty of nights where even standing room is hard to come by in here.
It’s characteristic of this club to be uninterested in impressing people with a line going out the door. Hollywood is full of posh clubs that treat long lines as valuable advertisements, charging hilariously high cover charges, and offering bathrooms that are as lavish as the dance floor. Which is why, especially in Hollywood, the Hotel Cafe’ is such an anomaly and continues to be so adored.
Here they showcase musicians who are simply good; who play solid songs with honest lyrics and skilled playing. Zack Hexum’s jazz-inflected pop, Sonya Kitchell’s bluesy love songs, and Jim Bianco’s rusty piano-driven songs about troubled relationships are the usual sort of singer-songwriter music the Hotel features. They try to keep it about the music and aren’t just unpretentious but anti-pretentious.
The Cafe’ fosters a familial atmosphere where the singers get to know each other from week to week, sometimes playing each others’ songs or adding vocals and backup to each others’ albums.
The musicians like to stick around after their performances, sipping beers or Penfolds Merlot and, at least the night I was there, doing some of the loudest cheering. It has become a place for musicians to hear other musicians. You are likely to spot local artists who are just coming out to check out a show or their friends’ bands performing. Something about the small corner stage, grungy red brick walls or spindly ceiling fans give the artists a sense of comfort to be in the performing space.
The wine list reflects the low-key vibe of the Cafe’. Featuring five reds and five whites, the list offers high-quality basics. The list diverges from the usual emphasis on California wines by offering choices from a variety of areas including Italy, Oregon, and four from Australia. The Earth Estates Pinot Grigio is a great choice, with apple and pear flavors that go well with the informal dining of the main room (but avoid the Toasted Head Chardonnay with the overly syrupy oak taste).
Since the crowd can’t live on wine alone, the Hotel offers a light menu of quesadillas, salads, and Panini sandwiches for their patrons. Squeezing the 12 or 15 small tables together into three long ones, everyone shares legroom and table space as they talk before the show.
The audience shares the same sensibility as the musicians, striking a nice middle ground between being smart and arty but remaining casual. There are plenty of hoodies and flip-flops in the crowd, and overheard conversation topics tend more toward politics and books than tabloid gossip.
So order a bottle of the Kenwood Yulupa Cabernet or the Penfolds Merlot to share with friends. The dim interior with brick walls and red velvet curtains makes red wine a more ideal choice. The Trinity Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon is especially rich and smooth choice with deep cherry and currant flavors.
As the musician begin, wine glasses are set down, conversation fizzles out, and all attention shifts respectfully to the stage as another interesting and refreshingly unpolished artist begins his or her set.
But recently the intimate, un-Hollywood scene of the Cafe’ has been flirting with the big time. Zack Braff, a regular of the club, managed to get several of the Hotel’s regulars, including Cary Brothers, Joshua Radin, and Schuyler Fisk, included on the heavily-promoted The Last Kiss soundtrack that came out in August.
The Cafe’ is also getting its name out across the US this fall with the second Hotel Cafe’ tour, co-sponsored by Myspace. Twenty-five of the regular Hotel Cafe’ performers are setting out on a tour bus and six or seven acts will perform each night, hopefully recreating the feel of the Cafe’ without over-commercializing the scene back home.
From the looks of the club and the crowd, the increased exposure has yet to change what the locals love about the Hotel Cafe’ and the club’s address remains, at least for the time being, the most Hollywood thing about it.