When it comes to thematic bars, twin brothers Mark and Jonnie Houston have not only dominated the market — they’ve defined it. The native Angelenos, who own no fewer than 10 nightlife establishments in Los Angeles via their company Houston Hospitality, have bar culture in their blood. (That’s thanks to their mom, a long-time proprietress of a dive bar called The Monte Carlo, located in the austere yet culturally rich section of Los Angeles known as Koreatown.) For these two, creating an inviting atmosphere is all about alchemy: décor, music and libations, each complementing the other in both subtle and obvious ways that evoke the theme of the establishment. But how do the brothers set a mood and vibe for each of their drinking locales so deftly while managing to avoid crossing the line into gauche-ville? For the Houston twins, it’s intuitive.
Though they’re known for bringing new life to rundown, past-their-prime old boozer hovels, the brothers revamping sensibility is very old school. “Growing up around dive bars, we’ve always loved them and the relaxed atmosphere,” says Mark Houston, relaxing on a couch with his lookalike brother inside their own Koreatown bar, Breakroom 86. “We’re in all our bars often and our favorite place to sit is right on the corner of the bar, just hanging out with the bartender, doing shots or whatever. We never found a bar that had the right vibe, so we decided to create it.”
For the Houstons, the “right vibe” is a multi-faceted one where the eye-candy is copious and amusements are abundant. Most of their bars have a dance area and employ DJs (the Cuban speakeasy La Descarga, the ‘70s living room-come-nightclub called Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, the John Hughes movie set-like ‘80s hangout Breakroom 86) while others offer food (Butchers and Barbers) or live performers (Pour Vous, The Piano Bar). Some of their bars, while cleaner and attracting a hipper clientele, manage to retain the raw feel of their predecessors (The Bar, Harvard & Stone). Almost all of them prioritize unique entry-ways (Descarga via a closet, Davey Wayne’s by walking into a garage refrigerator, and 86 behind a vending machine) and/or ample outdoor patios.
Unlike many other bar owners, Mark and Jonnie do everything themselves, from the design and décor of each bar to the music selections to overseeing their staff’s drink menu ideas. They are known for their attention to detail, especially when it comes to enhancing a theme. Still, when you look at their oeuvre of bars, it’s pretty hard to pigeonhole them.
“We try to create an experience, lots of experiences, within the bar,” says Jonnie. “And we try to see the environment from every angle. We sit in every seat and we think of every guest and what their perspective will be like. Yes, the bars’ patios are big for us, and so are the bathrooms.”
The bathrooms of Breakroom 86 are decked out with a 80s-inspired collage of posters and magazine clippings.
Both brothers cite their bathrooms as significant: places where patrons escape from the commotion of their packed main rooms and where the proprietors can play on their thematic ideas in more adventurous ways. At Breakroom 86 — their newest bar, which opened just this year and has helped put Koreatown on the map with young, hip and fashionable bar-hoppers — the bathrooms are covered with a colorful collage of posters and magazine clippings from the 80s, depicting TV stars, music faves and other imagery from the decade. One can spend hours in the lavatory reminiscing over (or in the case of millennials, discovering) Madonna’s early looks or Patrick Nagel’s art muses, made famous via Duran Duran’s “Rio.”
The rest of 86 is almost as embellished: lockers cover one wall, cassette tapes another. Boomboxes, amp cases, fliers and more fill various rooms and there’s a even a mini-arcade in the back of the place. It’s anything but minimalist, yet somehow it doesn’t feel like too much. I ask them how they know when to reel back on the frills.
“That’s a good question… we’re very feng shui in the way we approach things,” says Mark. “It’s more a feel and vibe. Do we second guess everything? Sure. And we fight about stuff all the time. We’ve been known to rip stuff out that we’ve done. But first we just do it and then we step back and see if it feels right.”
“Every theme of every bar is so different,” adds Jonnie. “We never repeat something we’ve already done. Our approach is more like artists.“
The same could be said of the Houstons’ drink offerings. Yes, themes are reflected on the cocktail menus, but authenticity doesn’t always make for the tastiest libations. At 86, for example, “wine coolers,” are on the menu, but they’re anything but the sugary Bartles and Jaymes sippers of the past. (For starters, they actually taste good.) This past summer, the Houston’s two retro bars had a fun seasonal menu that paid homage to frozen treats, a reference they can explore year-round thanks to LA’s great weather.
“We’re building an ice cream truck right now,” Mark says, motioning to the patio at 86. “We’ll have all the stuff you loved as a kid. But when it comes to the menu, we realize that people these days are more health conscious, so we’re all about using fresh ingredients. We’re finishing up our fall menu right now and we have everyone from our bar team collaborating. We like our staff to feel a sense of ownership of the bar’s menu and the place itself.”
Bar patrons enjoy the arcade at Breakroom 86.
“This is what separates us from other bar owners who do themes,” adds Mark, as his brother Jonnie nods in agreement. “What keeps us from going in a cheesy Disneyland direction is, when we do reference the past, we actually live it. We immerse ourselves in the culture. At the same time, we know you can’t knock people over the head with a theme either. You have to let it live organically and be open to it changing and growing.“
That may be true, but when it comes to LA’s most unpretentious impresarios’ excitement for creating bar environments both playful and novel, we hope they never change or grow up.
Can’t make it to L.A. for wine coolers and Donkey Kong? Take a little aural tour through each of the Houston Brothers’ bars with this genre-defying playlist, which pays homage to each Houston Brother bar’s individual vibe.