It’s hard to imagine a more perfect dive bar than Hinano Cafe, the colorful surfside bar and burger shack right off the water in Venice. The place seems to have taken entire pages from the traditional dive playbook, from the aging posters to the dingy floors to the haphazard crowd of locals, tourists, and delightful oddballs that occupy its stools. The history of places like this show in the worn walls and rough-edged but friendly regulars, each lending stories to the legends of the great American dive bar. Legends like Hinano Cafe, Ercoles in Manhattan Beach, or Joe Jost’s in Long Beach are timeless in their own way — or have been, until now.
Many of the city’s best dives find themselves hovering in a state of uncertainty, thanks to the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic that has pushed customers outside — or away altogether. And with little hope of sitting elbow-to-elbow under some low-slung, dusty ceiling until a COVID-19 vaccine has been produced, there’s an increasing worry that many of these colorful, charming community staples may not make it back. None of them are going down without a fight though, even if it means serving pickled eggs in a parking lot just to keep the drinks flowing and the customers coming in.
“Every day provides a brand new experience,” says Hinano Cafe owner Mark Van Gessel. “You’re never sure how the government will change the rules, or how we’ll have to immediately adapt.” Van Gessel is in an almost enviable position compared to other straight-up bars, in that Hinano Cafe, like several other prominent dives around greater LA, also serves food. Well, not just any food; there’s a tight collection of snacks and chips and what may well be the single best burger in all of Venice. That matters, from a public health standpoint, because it means that Hinano gets treated like a restaurant first, and can be open while bars without food cannot.
Even still, times are tighter than they have ever been before, though having access to the beach and a little outdoor seating seems to help. Van Gessel estimates that business is “down 75 percent, at least” and will be unsustainable in the medium or long term without some kind of change or federal assistance. Restaurants and bars, especially those that hew to the kind of aesthetic that makes people think they’re “cheap,” have always stayed afloat on tiny margins (Van Gessel still has a day job to keep it all afloat), but now they’re washing under water.
That has led to some difficult conversations with staff, with landlords, and with ownership about what the future of the great Westside dive bar might look like in 2021 and beyond. “We tried to keep everyone on,” says Van Gessel of Hinano’s staff, “but the amount of people we have to service is now substantially less. Right now it’s the same number of people, but everyone’s hours are substantially shortened. I feel really bad about that.” Van Gessel says that he’s had to work out a new lease agreement with his landlord as well, a single family of nearby locals who also don’t want to see Hinano close, but who rely on rental income to survive themselves.
Ercoles in Manhattan Beach has a similar setup, complete with a close-knit community and access to weekend beach-goers. The nearly 100-year-old bar, operated as a variety of different restaurants over the decades, has long maintained a run of windows in the front that opens to the sidewalk. That also happens to be where grill master Martin Anguiano does his best work.
Anguiano has been cooking burgers and hot dogs from a simple flat top griddle behind the bar and next to the window for more than a quarter-century; now, instead of popping open beers and acting as the de facto therapist for a generation of South Bay drinkers, his job is almost exclusively cooking. Fans of Anguiano’s burger — like Hinano’s, his is a deeply satisfying and beguiling SoCal creation with griddled beef, American cheese, plus lots of lettuce and other toppings on a classic seeded bun — and of the cocktails from longtime manager Mike Benavidez (he started in 1982) continue to show up and mingle, so much so the city of Manhattan Beach decided to dedicate a parklet to the restaurant for outdoor dining.
There’s even a historic Instagram fan account for the bar, run by Manhattan Beach local Kristin Long, that features the chops and ice cream sundaes of yesteryear as well as the weekday women’s groups that are helping to keep Ercoles afloat. Today, the bar is overseen by Staci Clark, the niece of longtime Ercoles steward Gary Moore — “a confirmed bachelor and avid fisherman,” so it’s said — who died in 2015 after running the place for 43 years.
Down in Long Beach, Joe Jost’s is using this uncertain moment to both remember the past and to look ahead. The restaurant has been run largely without interruption since 1924, proudly proclaiming on its website the litany of global crises the bar has survived. There are other epidemics and pandemics, plus Prohibition, World War II, the 1992 Los Angeles uprising, and more, all leading up to today’s enduring coronavirus pandemic, where well over 200,000 Americans have died. “Joe’s will survive the COVID-19 epidemic and expect that you will also,” says the site, with a note signed by current owner Ken J. Buck.
The parking lot has been reconfigured as an outdoor hangout, though it’s little more than folding tables and some shade umbrellas. It’s enough, for now, to keep money coming in, and as with Hinano and Ercoles, the key is being able to serve food — even the off-kilter stuff that Joe Jost’s is known for. Are fans really driving over just to eat a split Polish sausage with unmelted Swiss cheese on rye bread? What about the famed pickled eggs for $1.35? They are and will continue to, if it means helping Joe Jost’s put one more world-defining year in the rearview.
There’s hope on the horizon though, at least potentially. With the county’s declining coronavirus case numbers, some operators are beginning to anticipate more robust indoor dining through the late fall and winter, albeit with lower numbers and more distance than before. “I hope that when we can safely reopen, at least at a substantial level, that I’m able to bring the vibe back,” Van Gessel says. People haven’t changed all that much in the past six months, he adds: they still crave community, a gathering place, and good food and drink. Places like Hinano Cafe, as well as Ercoles and Joe Jost’s, certainly fit that bill. And as long as they’re able to weather the current storm (as they already have so many others before), there’s hope that LA’s greatest beachside dive bars may not be done yet.