Barfly is a column that celebrates old haunts and new hotspots of Los Angeles nightlife. Sometimes playgirl and former sex writer Nicky navigate hangovers and heartache, one bar at a time.
The stretch of Ventura Boulevard that connects Studio City and Sherman Oaks is lined with modern boutiques, antiquated repair stores, and small cafes that spill out onto the sidewalk. Each little gem I drive past feels like a place where I could easily make myself at home — and upon retiring from the hustle and bustle and never-ending Hollywood traffic, many film professionals and industry types eventually move here to do just that. I’m one of few locals who actually grew up near here, so I know that while it’s not often referred to as such, the intersection of Studio City and Sherman Oaks has long been recognized as the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
I recently took a job in Sherman Oaks, and being back here regularly — for the first time in ten years — means I’m constantly running into ghosts; they jump out at me on almost every block, and though they all haunt me in one way or another, not all of them are sinister. Casa Vega is a friendly ghost and beloved family-owned and operated valley hideout.
The building sits shamelessly white and bright on the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Fulton Avenue. I call it shameless because of the way the walls extend to the sidewalk, as if utilizing every available inch would make it as pronounced as possible to the passersby. It doesn’t look like any of the surrounding businesses, and feels simultaneously out of place and exactly right, as though a Palm Springs casita fell out of the sky and landed in the heart of this bustling suburb a few miles north of Tinseltown. It’s essentially a movie backdrop, and no establishment could be more perfectly Hollywood adjacent than a Palm Springs casita in Sherman Oaks painting itself as a Mexican restaurant. In fact, its neon sign is featured in the iconic “stroll through the valley” montage in the 1983 cult-classic film Valley Girl, which stars a very young and studly Nic Cage.
I pull up to the door and ask in my best bimbo voice, “Do I really have to pay, since I’m here so early?” but the valet nodded back at me, sweetly. I decide to find a parking spot on the street (there’s always street parking in the valley), and use the moment alone to quickly change into something less work-appropriate. It’s a little after 6 PM and happy hour is in full swing. When I open the door to the restaurant, I’m hit with a blast of cold air conditioning, the smell of fresh tortilla chips, and a rush of distant memories.
My best friend from middle school, Jackie, moved back to Oregon at the end of ninth grade, but we still stayed close after high school graduation. Her big sister remained in LA to pursue a career in the adult film industry, and would regularly fly Jackie back down for long summer visits. We were barely twenty and totally naïve. Until that summer, we had no suspicions as to Jackie’s sister’s career — despite all signs pointing to the contrary. It wasn’t until we went to dinner at Casa Vega one night, and were introduced to five other busty, Leg Avenue and leather wearing adult actors, that we finally become aware of the world she existed in.
There are several valley establishments that boast porn star clientele, and I wouldn’t want anyone to chalk up Casa Vega’s reputation to a spot that’s solely an off-the-clock adult industry star hang – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyone who knows anything about porn and the valley knows the stereotypes and lore: back in the day, these women truly were stars, and they commingled naturally with the typical A-list celebs one frequently encounters throughout the city.
Casa Vega has been around for over sixty years, and its employees are loyal and professional. The restaurant caters to both local regulars and those who want to ride under the radar. The ambience is fun and discreet, and the decor of old Hollywood Mexican camp always makes it easy to let down one’s proverbial hair as soon as you plop down into one of the delicious red leather booths.
I decide to take a seat at the bar while waiting for my friend Dani. The lights were twinkling and the bartender approached with restrained enthusiasm and a warm smile. “What can I get you?”
“A margarita rocks, no salt, please.”
His response made me crack a smile for the first time all day. We began to chat and, just as I started to explain that my friend would be meeting me soon and that we might move to table, Dani burst through the door with her arms open wide, ready to hit me with one of her signature bear hugs. “Nicky!”
With her heart of gold and beautiful soul, Dani had also made a recent life change, starting a new job in the valley around the same time I did. Whiskey-drinking party clowns for years already, we’d both tamed our wild-woman ways in favor of careers, relationships, and curbing mid-thirties onset alcoholism. Nevertheless, I’d gotten it in my head that Casa Vega would be reclaimed as “our spot” now that we worked so close to each other.
She received a similar greeting from our bartender, followed by the same enthusiasm when she too ordered a margarita. It’s not often that I’m made to feel like I’m in exactly the right place, making the exactly correct order, at the very best time. We decided to post up at the bar and quickly ordered the queso dip and the appetizer sampler (fried everything is always my favorite dinner).
While downing our second drink, fully infected with tequila and fiesta vibes, Dani leaned into me with that, ‘I have an idea’ look on her face that I knew all too well. “Would you be down to get a tarot card reading? The Psychic Eye book shop is only two blocks away and I’ve gotten a reading there before. It was great. I’ll pay for it!”
Before I knew it I was sitting across from a psychic medium named Kota. With a strong margarita buzz and mild feelings of apprehension, I politely answered her questions as she began to pull my cards. There were cups, there was a goddess, and at the end, the flaming tower. “I’ve seen that one before,” I told her. Until then I’d only gotten readings from a dear friend whose gifts I fully trusted; at the end of my last relationship, she did a private reading for me, which is where I saw this tumultuous card reveal itself for the first time.
“Is there chaos in your life?” she asked. Ha! Kota moved on.
“Your numerology says this is going to be a good love year for you,” she told me. Of all the dating years, this was the only one on record where I’d sworn to myself that I would not, under any circumstances, fall in love. So, this year? This was my love year?! While trying to process this information, Kota dropped another bomb on me. “In 2021, I see you living with a man and a child. I don’t know if it’s your child, or his, or both.” Though shocked, I can’t say I was disappointed with her prediction.
When Dani and I emerged from our readings, she was beaming. On the heels of a major career change and her upcoming marriage to the love of her life, she’d gotten some very reassuring information. I was still reeling from everything Kota had predicted. After quickly recapping our readings, we decided the best course of action was to head back to Casa Vega for one more margarita.
As we re-entered the extra-cold air conditioning, deep red ambience and twinkling lights, the stars were aligned, and two seats opened up at the bar. We recommenced conversation with our new best friend, the bartender, and told him what we’d just done. “Well, when you and your man have a baby in 2021 come back here, we’ll celebrate!” Only a very special kind of place makes you feel like a regular, even after a thirteen-year hiatus.
With the reading on my mind, I stared down into my drink and hesitated. “Dani, I’ve just made it through the hardest love failure of my life. I gave up my job, my apartment, and moved in with someone I thought I was going to spend my life with. Then everything blew up, and I had to start over from scratch. I know, deep down, that it’s too soon for me to jump into anything romantic. I haven’t fully healed, and I’m afraid that if I opened my heart right now, I wouldn’t be able to navigate things in a healthy way. How can this be my love year?”.
“I don’t know,” she said with a smile. “Maybe it means this is your year to fall back in love with yourself. Maybe you need to fall in love with the new life you’ve created, and truly accept all the love you already have.”
As I finished my margarita, in a casita, in the heart of the valley, blissful and happy among friends old and new, I realized Dani had a good point. My love year was about me, because I already had love, so much love, all around me.