Small Hours: Little names that make the short list


LOS ANGELES TIMES

May 14, 2006

By James Verini

“A good name is better than precious ointment,” the Bible tells us. Last month, Hyde, a small lounge devoted to rock ‘n’ roll, opened on Sunset. Owned by club-Trump Sam Nazarian and his new business partner, promoter Brent Bolthouse, Hyde sports one of those strong but slightly silly one-word names that dominate L.A. nightlife right now.

It joins Nazarian’s other properties Lobby, Privilege (formerly Shelter) and Prey, and competes for business with nearby one-worders such as Nacional, Ivar and Falcon. (It sits in the space that used to house the bar North.)

Sounding like some sexed-up redux of Robert Louis Stevenson, Hyde is actually supposed to evoke 1960s London. Though before getting the reference to Hyde Park, one can be excused for wondering what animal pelts have to do with a nightclub. (To be fair, Nazarian and Bolthouse hope to elicit thoughts of leather and suede too.)

But it’s the monosyllable that makes Hyde seem distinctly of the moment. Five years ago it might have been called Hyde’s. In the 1990s, HiDe. In the Disco Era it surely would have been Club Jekyll & Hyde, and if this were the early ’60s and the Rat Pack were drinking there, the Hyde Room. In the 1910s it would have been a place to get a whiskey and a pair of chaps (you have to go deeper into West Hollywood for that now).

A good name can make a middling establishment somewhat cool, whereas a bad name can mysteriously taint otherwise nice cocktails and decor. A name cannot close a place or keep one open, but it can add to or detract from its life.

Take the Tropicana Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel. Nice place, bad name. The aim no doubt was to call to mind exotic locales, but instead one hears it and thinks of frozen orange juice and cheap floral-print skirts (which, sadly, is what you’re often left with at the end of a Saturday night at Tropicana).

In contrast, just up the street from the Roosevelt is the Power House, one of the divey-est dives in Hollywood, whose name is nonetheless so, well, powerful, so resoundingly ridiculous — you can just see one of the barflies who frequent it saying to his wife, “I’m goin’ to the Power House, woman!,” and his wife actually being kind of impressed — it gives the Power House an appeal all out of proportion to the place itself.

A good name on a bar or club conjures a vivid image, captures a specific time or place, tells a story, or even, as in the case of the Power House, has a sense of humor.

A great name does all of that while also telling you something about the people behind it or announcing a “concept” (nightlife entrepreneurs, like studio executives, are all about concept).

Most important, a good name sticks in the mind.

A mark of the Tropicana’s ineptitude is that even today, nearly two years after it opened, many people still don’t know what the bar is called. They simply say “We’re going to the Roosevelt.” Not coincidentally, the word Roosevelt is muscular and fun and evokes old-time American class and authority.

Roosevelt — great name.

In L.A., catching eyes with a name — what branding experts call “curb appeal” — is doubly hard, because so much as hanging a sign is often deemed too obvious. Everyone is just supposed to know that place there, the one with dark windows and nondescript dirty exterior, that’s the place.

Sean MacPherson, who owns Jones on Santa Monica, El Carmen on 3rd Street and Bar Lubitsch, soon to open in West Hollywood, said he looks for names “that are as classic as possible and will endure and are the least trendy I can find. They evoke some sense of history, I suppose. History and substance.”

“People want something that will mimic or extend their personality, but that can be a mistake,” said Jordan LeBel, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “What you want is a word that makes for a nice, eye-catching logo.”

As far as tricks of the trade go, LeBel said nightlife entrepreneurs tend to choose one-word names with as few syllables as possible because these names are easier to recognize and remember. Successful places tend to have names that begin with a hard consonant.

Sometimes, LeBel said, even a single letter can function as a kind of brand on a patron’s mind. This is the thinking behind the big ‘H’ on the Hyde awning and the 4-foot-high ‘S’ looming on the exterior of the new Social Hollywood.

Still, if some of the recent one-word names in L.A. are effective, many more are preposterous. Almost all sound as though they were concocted by focus groups to be catchy. Few are great.

Last week, in the space that used to house the club Concorde (which itself fell into the interesting-but-ambiguous category of club names: Are they referring to fast planes? Grapes?), the club Shag opened. It falls into what we might call the transparency category — “Come here and you might get shagged!” — that also includes Nazarian’s Privilege and the menacing Prey, which is, frankly, a little too transparent. “Come here and be another cowering calf in a pack of wolves!”

Sadly for Shag, though, the word “shag” got beaten to death during those years when everyone was going around doing bad English accents and quoting Austin Powers. More sadly, the interior of Shag feels like a low-end strip club in Reno. And not the nice part of Reno. Indeed, the best one can say of Shag’s name is that it’s fairly evocative of what’s inside (no shag carpet, but plenty of mirrors and black wallpaper).

Recently reopened on Las Palmas, meanwhile, is the club Element, the drunk-young-celebrity cavern of the moment. Element is part of the atmospheric abstraction school of club names popularized by nearby Mood. This trend seems to go back as far as the groundbreaking New York club Area. Element’s name makes up for the lack of elements inside the club, an ad hoc space which on its best nights resembles a big, abandoned church basement commandeered by hard-living tweens.

There are the industrial names such as Factory, and LAX, which tries to evoke the golden age of air travel (fittingly, the interior is about as loud and cement-y as a runway); self-effacing and sardonic names such as Another Room in Venice and the Frolic Room, Power House’s equally seedy Hollywood compatriot (no one’s frolicked in there since Veronica Lake died); and the confusing names such as Lobby (where’s the Muzak? Is Jack Abramoff an investor?) and Beechwood in Venice, which isn’t on Beachwood Drive and doesn’t have a beechwood tree on the patio.

Actually, Lobby is so obvious that it is confusing. Nazarian wanted to evoke the feeling of, well, a lobby. A nice hotel lobby. (He owns several hotels.)

The naming process for Hyde, Nazarian said, took three months. It was chosen from an initial list of 500 — yes, 500 — names. Not only did he want a name that said rock ‘n’ roll and leather, but also one that indicated to the adult night owls of L.A., under-served by clubs catering to barely legal hip-hop kids, that this is a place where they can “hide” out. Get it?

“It’s the most fun and easiest part of putting together a nightclub,” Nazarian said, not too convincingly.