Barfly: Forman’s Whiskey Tavern

Philip Cosores

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.

It’s just over a hundred degrees when the movers load the last of my things into a storage unit situated in the middle of the desert that is this late-summer San Fernando Valley Saturday. It’s noon, and without a cloud in the sky, the sun is bright and relentless. My whole life, packed into boxes. Again. This marks the third time in the past decade that I’ve moved all of my stuff into this particular storage facility. By now, the owners greet my mom and I by name.

We plop down on a steel dolly hiding in the shade of a moving truck, and share the last of a bag of stale tortilla chips salvaged from the now-empty fridge in my now-vacant apartment. No one likes to move, but for some reason we’re giddy, probably with exhaustion and the madness brought on by inescapable heat, topped off with relief, after completing this out-of-the-blue move in less than a week.

I haven’t cried yet about deciding to leave my apartment behind after its sudden and ruthless betrayal of my trust — which is strange. Change often makes me cry because change feels hard and I cry when a lot of hard things happen all at once, just like I cry when I’m alone with a lot of tasks to accomplish. I cry when I feel bad for myself and when something isn’t fair. I cry when no none is looking. We put the lock on the door, pay the movers and head back to my mom and grandma’s place in Toluca Lake. I’ll see you in a few months, I think. I’m not sad yet.

My family moved to Toluca Lake when I was 16, during my junior year of high school. This quaint little community is bordered by several more recognizable Los Angeles neighborhoods — Burbank, Universal City, North Hollywood — and sits nestled on the valley side of the Hollywood Hills. There’s no real lake, per se, but there is a small body of water; a pool of runoff from the Los Angeles River that’s completely private and beautifully maintained by local residents (I’ve only seen it once).

Surrounded by many of the city’s most prominent movie studios and television networks, many of old Hollywood’s elite once called Toluca Lake home: Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby, to name a few. Amelia Earhart was one of its first residents. Most importantly, it’s the home of the famous diner Bob’s Big Boy (well, technically it’s in Burbank but locals claim it as their own).

I’m moving back in with my mom for a couple weeks, and I don’t want the other shoe to drop. She’s worked so hard to help me through this move (and so many others), and I want to stay out of my sad space and inside this grateful place for as long as I can. Instead of moping, I want to celebrate, and there is no shortage of places to do that in Toluca Lake. It’s now midday, probably inching towards 2 PM, and despite the palpable fatigue on her face, my mom agrees to rally.

Philip Cosores

A while later and a few drinks in, we’re standing in front of Forman’s Whiskey Tavern. “You know, I used to come here back in the ‘70s when this was the Money Tree,” she laughs. The Money Tree was a happening spot that reached peak popularity in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. It was founded in 1951 and owned by Moe Howard, of Three Stooges fame, for many years. It boasted star-studded clientele which allegedly included Dean Martin and freaking Marilyn Monroe. 

The original Money Tree sign was recently resurrected for Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I don’t know if the Money Tree sign actually made it into the final cut, but friends sent me pictures of Riverside Drive transformed back to the way the block looked back in 1969, so I know it happened.

Forman’s, named after Toluca Lake’s very own founding father: General Charles Forman, opened in 2015 and quickly became a local favorite among the growing pool of young, white-collared folks who’ve taken over Toluca Lake’s nightlife, and it too is being well cared for by local residents: The handful of times I’ve been here, always late at night, this rustic tavern-slash-hunting lodge is packed to standing-room only.

This afternoon crowd is unsurprisingly lighter, and my mom and I are able to take two stools at the bar. What we want is a margarita, and I notice that the chalkboard is advertising  some sort of spicy margarita for only $6 during happy hour. A young woman, totally beautiful and beyond hip, approaches and we ask about said margarita. She tells us that happy hour prices aren’t available on weekends — if we want a margarita it’s gonna $14. In hindsight I’m not sure what we were expecting from a whiskey bar, so we ordered two beers instead. “Do you have Corona Light?” my mom asks.

“Um, no.”

“Coors Light?”

“No, our beers are right there on the menu.” My mom gives me a “look,” which I know means two things: one, she doesn’t have her glasses with her so she can’t read a menu and two, she wouldn’t know the difference between an IPA and a Pilsner anyway. I find something simple and order two pints. “Would you like to start a tab?” My mother gives me another “look,” which this time means, what the hell does she mean, start a tab? “No, we’ll pay cash,” she says with a strained smile, although I can see her suspicions are mounting. 

The bartender’s suspicions are also growing, as she has now paused right in front of us, holding the two beers and looking squarely at me. “I think she wants us to pay now,” I gently explain (another nail in the coffin). In my mom’s world, you pay your bill at the end of your meal, as paying for drinks one at a time is reserved for things like sporting events and casinos. I see her point of course, it’s not like we’re going to down these beers and run out the front door without paying, but I also understand that in bars with high turnover and a younger-leaning clientele, this is more common than not. 

If you want to pay for your tab with cash, the bar needs a card in case you get drunk and leave without closing out (something I do at least once a year). That’s all this lovely gal needed to say, but instead just stood there, holding our beers and staring at my mom, stoically. She opened her wallet and handed the gal a 20

My mother is an old-school bar patron. In her world, every bar is the same: You order vodka, scotch, or beer and if you want wine you simply describe your preferences and let the bartender do their job. My mom is of the Money Tree generation. “I don’t think this place is for us, mom,” I say once the bartender steps away. What I mean is, this place may not be right for her. “Let’s just get out of here.” Before I can take another sip of my beer, my mom is already halfway out the door, essentially fleeing “new” Toluca Lake. She used to frequent places like the Money Tree, and my friends and I go to places like Forman’s all the time. 

None of this is to discount Forman’s – it’s an absolutely beautiful spot. It’s fun, people are crazy about the whiskey, and it serves the needs of the community perfectly… it just may not be equipped to serve old Hollywood types like my mom while still maintaining its new Hollywood stature.

Instead of hitting up another old neighborhood spot, we opt to circle back to Trader Joes and pick up a couple bottles of champagne to share with my grandma back at the house. Grams, who turned 94 this year, and has trouble walking and doesn’t like to leave the house much because going out in a wheelchair touches on her pride. When we get home, she’s seated in the living room, poised and ready to hear all about our day. Safe and happy I realize, my whole life isn’t packed into some storage unit. Coming home, however briefly, to Toluca Lake and to my loving little family consisting of three generations of LA gals, is a change that I’m happy to smile through. I am so lucky to have them. 

Boxes be damned. My whole life is right here.

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