A few weathered boards in need of paint and a front door without an actual handle obscure the Chicago-themed nirvana that thrives inside of LA’s Escondite – the city’s foremost hockey bar that celebrates the other Stanley Cup winner. One of many in major cities across the United States, this particular Chicago Blackhawks bar attracts a niche crowd, one down to straddle Little Tokyo and Skid Row to get its fix of hockey and home.
The bar is genuinely tough to find if you’re walking down Boyd Street. It lives up to its name, which means “the hideout,” in Spanish. It’s situated between a parking lot with one sometimes-lit neon sign that overlooks a covered patio, and another gastropub. But the lack of visibility is intentional. After losing the lease on his first bar, owner Brian Houck designed the place as a reprieve from the always-on-and-rowdy LA sports bar scene. He wanted to offer some familiarity to Blackhawks fans and locals alike in a city that’s ever transient and often lets newcomers fall by the wayside.
“We’re not a sports bar – we’re a hockey bar,” Houck says. “We show everything, but hockey is No. 1 here, and what makes the Escondite the only place to watch the Blackhawks is that we’re the only official Chicago Blackhawks bar on the entire West Coast.”
The honor – self-proclaimed but recognized by the team – hangs on the wall beside the city’s flag for a few reasons: the bar attracts almost exclusively Chicago transplants and LA-native Hawks fans; serves Chicago-style food and brews – think Schlitz ads on every wall, Italian beef and fried pickles – and boasts the undivided support of Chicago’s hockey team, which sends the bar signed memorabilia to display or auction off for Blackhawks-sponsored charities.
Such tokens are inherent to the bar’s traditions: “We have a train horn made from a fire extinguisher that goes off after every Blackhawks goal during the playoffs, goal lights and a defibrillator called the ‘Tits Butkus’ that we wheel out during the start of the period for those ‘heart attack’ games,” Houck says.
Those customs and the community shaping them have seeped into native Angeleno and manager Victoria Gronek who has worked at the Escondite since its opening day seven years ago.
“I know almost all of the regulars,” Gronek says, pointing at a lovey couple whose engagement she helped facilitate on the roof of the bar years ago. “People have brought their moms and dads here when they’re here for the weekend to meet me and see the bar, and I babysit the dog of one of my Blackhawks fans. It’s crazy because as busy as we get, there’s that much exchange and community on both sides.”
That’s not something Gronek has experienced in the years she’s put in at other bars, where she says no one really ever bothered to learn anyone else’s names. At the Escondite, everyone knows everyone somehow, the one bar that reminds everyone of their favorite bar back home.
“In LA, that’s really hard to find,” Gronek says. “There’s a lot of turnover, there’s a lot of gloss and surface, but here, people can feel comfortable forming friendships and relationships and talking about things that maybe aren’t talked about or accepted at other places. It’s very transactional, I think, at a lot of other bars. That’s not the case here.”
That sentiment echoes along the dark-wood-embraced walls of the pub, which glow under saltwater lights from a stage set up to host live music every night. It bounces between the bartenders shooting the breeze with every regular they know on a first-name basis; newcomers laughing because the headdresses and deer antlers on the wall don’t line up with what they expect to be next door to a high-end gastropub; parties of six panting over their food in the building’s barn-like outdoor patio. The blessed view of downtown’s skyline stares back at them longingly as if it wants a bite of someone’s Captain Kangaroo (egg, hash brown and bacon) burger, too.
“When you talk to people in LA, they’re always boasting and talking about how busy they are all the time,” says Mitchell Evans a musician by day, an Escondite regular by night. “Here, you just come here, you relax, you have a good time with all the people and just get along with everybody.”
Like Evans, Chicago uproot Dan Femiak has celebrated all of his city’s latest triumphs at the Escondite – the 2016 Cubs World Series win, the last two Blackhawks Stanley Cup conquests. He says it’s electric at the bar, even when it’s packed with Kings fans during an LA-Chicago game.
“Everyone at the end of it, just like they do on the ice, they shake hands, good game,” Femiak says. “This bar is home away from home. I’m friends with everyone that works here, now, and with everyone that comes here – that’s a Chicago fan. I love it.”