Singing the Roadhouse Blues at Barney’s Beanery

By Bob Vickrey
Special to the Palisades News

Say it ain’t so, West Hollywood! We’re told the venerable Barney’s Beanery restaurant is going to be displaced soon by a new upscale hotel.

The developers there are making singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell appear prophetic when recalling lyrics from her 1970 hit “Big Yellow Taxi:”

“They’ve paved Paradise and put up a
parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and
swinging hot spot”

Plans call for the 89-year-old landmark to be disassembled and eventually restored on the same property during the construction of the five-story boutique hotel. But many longtime customers are skeptical that their favorite haunt will someday return as the same unconventional homey spot that it is today.

Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood may soon be gone. Photo: Barry Stein

Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood may soon be gone.
Photo: Barry Stein 

 A recent Los Angeles Times story regarding the controversial addition of yet another hotel cited citizen concerns about traffic congestion and parking in the already dense corridor along Santa Monica Boule vard. (Sound familiar, Palisadians?)

Our monthly lunch club decided that we’d better make a trip there before the construction crews dismantled our booth. The Times’ story categorized Barney’s as a “famous greasy spoon,” but we remained undaunted by that label as we pursued our mission of unearthing our city’s restaurant history like the true dining anthropologists we have become.
And indeed, there is history aplenty at Barney’s since its opening in 1927, which was built along the newly constructed Route 66. Many Hollywood stars have paid a visit to the old roadhouse in intervening years. Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth, and Jack Nicholson were among those who called this unique watering hole their hangout.

Rock stars Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison were known to enjoy some late-night revelry there. In fact, after Joplin’s untimely death in 1970, a longtime customer was quoted as saying “it was really Barney’s coffee that killed her.”

I had remembered how noisy Barney’s can be during its busy dinners, and in my younger years, I would likely have described the place as a fun and rowdy meeting spot. But these days, I find that its raucous atmosphere sometimes offers all the charm and ambiance of Terminal Six at LAX. However, we found the lunch crowd considerably less rowdy and actually sedate by its nighttime standards.

Since the extensive menu there rivals the page count of War and Peace, in order to better understand all of our lunch options, we intelligently employed the techniques learned from the speed-reading course we had taken at night school. I also stayed up late the night before studying the online menu. (We take our job seriously.)

Among the one thousand menu items offered, I had read that actress Marilyn Mon- roe had been fond of Barney’s famous “Classic Chili” back in the day, so Norma Jean’s favorite was a good enough endorsement for me. Our pal Arnie, who was formerly known as “the burger king,” has recently broken away from his old ordering patterns and decided on the chicken tostada.

Barry chose the “Italian Chopped Wrap” and Josh ordered the New England clam chowder. It took all four of us to open the wrapper of Josh’s oyster crackers and after an extended wrestling match with the stubborn package we needed a long nap.

Our gracious server Whitney was a good sport and tolerated our silliness. The attractive Arkansas native posed for pictures with us at the pool table while the gentlemen at an adjacent booth awaited his photo-op with her. We decided that she knew the routine at Barney’s well and had dealt with much more challenging groups than our own.

Members of the lunch club (left to right), Bob Vickrey, Barry Stein, Josh Greenfeld and Arnie Wishnick, pose with their waitress, Whitney. Photo: Barry Stein

Members of the lunch club (left to right), Bob Vickrey, Barry Stein, Josh Greenfeld and Arnie Wishnick, pose with their waitress, Whitney. Photo: Barry Stein

We topped off our lunch with a slice of the house favorite “Warm Apple Pie” with melted cheddar and ice cream—accompanied by four straws.

Before our sated group waddled out to the parking lot, we toured the various nooks and crannies of the old roadhouse for the last time and studied the collection of eccentric memorabilia mounted on the walls and ceiling that celebrates memorable West Hollywood history.

There is little doubt that many longtime Barney’s customers will be sharing the sentiments of Joni’s poignant song lyrics in coming months:

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘til its gone
They’ve paved Paradise and put up a 
parking lot.”

Bob Vickrey is a longtime Palisadian whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald and a regular contributor to the Boryana Books website.

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