Barfly: The Kibitz Room

Photo by Shannon Cooke

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 Kibitz Room sits at the bottom of the graffiti and street art-lined Fairfax Avenue, amid sneaker shops, skateboard retailers, and top-rated restaurants. It’s attached to a legitimately famous dining establishment: Jewish diner and delicatessen Canter’s, an old-school spot notorious for pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup — unapologetically overpriced and conveniently served 24 hours a day.

The bar is an LA landmark whose name recognition among locals is split. Depending on what part of the city you grew up in, it’s either a foreign spot or an instantly recognizable haunt. The Kibitz was frequented by the likes of Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison back in the ‘60s, then, became home to hair metal bands in the ‘80s. For those who love it, the spot is a deeply defended place, loved unconditionally and home to outcasts, celebs, and barflys of all types. My intimate connection with The Kibitz (as familiars call it) has allowed it to serve as my personal backdrop for countless good times and discreet encounters, and it’s often my knee-jerk suggestion when a cool stranger lands into LA and wants to meet for a drink.

When the Actor walked into The Kibitz that night I felt a pinch under the table. Tall, stylish, commanding and warm, Brittany knew exactly who he was. He approached our booth and introduced himself, unfazed by the presence of my surprise plus-one and oldest friend, starry-eyed and seated next to me at the low, oversized booth. I didn’t mention I’d invited her along, mostly because she was to serve as both buffer and chaperone. With a charming demeanor and gentlemanly instincts, he immediately took our drink order. With more excitement she leaned into me, “That’s the guy from… am I allowed to talk about his show?”

It wasn’t the show — the smash hit currently poised for syndication; it wasn’t the show everyone recognizes him from today, the show he ultimately had to change his life for. He was still an indie darling at this time, but even in the infancy of his fame, he carried with him an air of distinction. The kind someone only possesses when they know they’re going to be a big deal someday. “Ha! Yes, of course! We don’t have to pretend we don’t know who he is. He’s out here auditioning for a movie,” I replied. “Oh – and he’s married.”

He didn’t tell me he was married – Google did. In the beginning, we didn’t have to say this thing was destined to remain at a red-heart distance because the physical and emotional remove was obvious, it kept us safe, kept me safe. I’d stumbled upon this energetic up-and-comer with a musician’s soul — an east-coast transplant who vowed his heart belonged to LA now — in some secret corner of the internet before his TV debut.

We soon succumbed to subtle flirtations: hard-to-explain-unless-you’ve-been-there exchanges that consisted of regular check-ins that were fun and uplifting, always with the understanding that mandatory omission of details relating to anything directly connected to our personal lives was good practice. Our “friendship” continued on this way, suggestive but reserved, until the day I got the message that he was coming to LA for an audition.  A few hours later there he was, opening a bar tab and breaking all of our unspoken rules.

Shannon Cooke

The crowd size at The Kibitz that night was more akin to a Friday than a Monday, and the high energy was delightfully contagious as the drinks flowed among the three of us. We settled into the night, the cocktails, and even the terrible band playing so loudly it made hearing the person sitting next to you practically impossible. We shared stories and laughed like old friends, as The Actor and I slipped in bashful glances between lulls in conversation. Eventually, I excused myself for a cigarette and he offered to join me. We stood on the street, closely, breath visible in the cold night under the buzzing neon sign. He said I was too pretty and that he really wanted to see my apartment. Suddenly, I felt my cheeks turn very red.  

The sober hours were behind us now, and soon, it was inching towards midnight. Brittany reluctantly excused herself, citing an early work day ahead, and the three of us peeled ourselves up from the warm, whiskey-stained booth. I had to be up early, too, but was just buzzed enough to pretend I didn’t. Brittany assumed, incorrectly, that we’d all part ways once the tab was paid. But after giving good-bye hugs and trading, “it was so great to meet you!” niceties, The Actor and I transitioned to the ever-so-convenient deli next door. Outwardly, it was an innocent, late-night snack. Inwardly, we both knew it was the easiest way to perpetuate the distance between us while also not yet saying goodnight.

We finished our milkshakes and he took my hand in his. Maybe I reminded him of his favorite person, place or time. Maybe I looked or acted like some love he knew years ago. Whatever I was to him, it was clear I was the type of girl he’d make a terrible mistake for — his intentions were no longer theoretical. Drawn to this intoxicating energy, I’d let things get this far without facing what taking it further would mean. With our buffer gone and my defenses weakened, I agreed to let him walk me home. “Only to my door,” I blurted, as though saying it would make me less culpable. We walked slowly, arrived at my building, and shared a long, slow hug.

My mind raced — if our roles were reversed, if one day I was to fall in love again and then, out of nowhere, some unexpected memory-triggering person recklessly barged into my life, into my love story, I would surely be inconsolable. A betrayal of that magnitude is life-altering. He was bursting with anticipation, and I was paralyzed with guilt. I didn’t let him kiss me. I didn’t invite him in. I said goodnight. But really, I was saying goodbye. I valued the life he had — even if he didn’t. No good would come from him making room for me. I’d be playing the villain in someone else’s story.

What seemed like a simple choice at the time was what I’ve come to see as a real gesture towards adulthood, a mature decision that extended beyond a single night’s pleasure — an act of self-care I hadn’t embraced until then. The next time The Actor was in town, I was “sick.” Soon, our exchanges dwindled and the flame that once burned dangerously bright blew out. Shortly after, fame came and graciously took him from me forever. Something made me think of him recently, seeing his face on a billboard somewhere, so I looked him up. He and his wife are still together.

Over the years, I’ve taken countless dates to the Kibitz. I’ve blacked out there. I’ve seen bands and bad standup there. I’ve cried there, gotten high there, and written thousands of words seated on a barstool there. I’ve been stood up there, taken strange, dodgy men home from there, and on that one night in December, it’s where I decided not to start an affair. That same year, just a week later, it was where I celebrated Christmas.

In so many ways, I grew up in the Kibitz Room. Though I don’t meet dates there anymore, after ten years and counting of patronage, I’m finally a full-fledged regular. The Kibitz is my place to meet a pal or be comfortably alone while surrounded by strangers. It’s my safe place, my place to feel like me – a barfly who likes to chat with her neighbors and wind down with a drink after a long day. It’s my cliché, and my touchstone in this expansive city. It’s a place I share with everyone and no one, and maybe, some high-energy night when folks are out and about and eager for a good story, I might even be there, having a drink next to you.

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