Many students can’t imagine USC without the 901 Bar & Grill. More affectionately known as the 9-0 (pronounced “Nine-Oh”), this bar has been a staple of USC life ever since it opened in 1947. For students, it’s the place you go to at midnight on your 21st birthday. It’s where you start your weekend on Whiskey Wednesday, turn your tongue blue with AMFs and dance to “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers for the thousandth time in your college career. It’s where you seem to see everyone you’ve ever met in college on any given night of the week. And it’s where seniors go at 3:30 a.m. before their graduation ceremony.
The 9-0 isn’t just an unassuming building at the end of 28th Street: For many students, it’s a second home.
According to a 1974 edition of SoCal Magazine and the Daily Trojan archives, the 9-0 moved from its namesake address, 901 W. Jefferson Blvd., in 1975 when the Hoover Redevelopment Project purchased the building. It was torn down to make room for the original University Village that opened in 1976. Then-owner Harold Matheson could not afford to move back into the Village because of the rent increase, so he moved the bar to its current location at 2902 S. Figueroa St.
Today, its position at the end of The Row is well-suited for members of Greek life. “We literally are at the edge of fraternity and sorority row, which I think is a big bulk of our late night clientele,” said Keith Barrett, one of the 9-0 managers. “A lot of our partying during club hours comes from those kids, and so they funnel in. It’s right there.”
Barrett has been a general manager of the 9-0 since August 2016. Aside from serving customers and ensuring the bar is fully stocked, Barrett also makes sure the 9-0 is on top of the latest trends. He added Smirnoff Ice to the menu in the spring of 2018, and now, “People get iced at the 9-0 often.” This past fall semester, Barrett added picklebacks to the menu because the drink is popular among students. If you’re not familiar, a pickleback is a shot of whiskey chased with a shot of pickle brine. For the purposes of writing this article, I tried a pickleback, and if you dislike pickles like I do, it’s definitely not the drink for you.
Even though the 9-0 feels like the bar for everyone, other venues like Banditos Tacos & Tequila and Rock & Reilly’s have opened near USC within the last two years and drawn big crowds at night. While students frequently hang out at all three bars, they continually hit up the 9-0 for wings on Wednesdays and dance parties on Thursdays.
“To me, the 9-0 represents so much more than just a bar,” said Mariel Salem, a senior studying business administration. “It’s truly a community and a space where people can come together of different schools, different majors, different interests and unite under a common interest of wanting to let go and have fun.”
But to business owners and other working adults near the university, the 9-0 is a lunch destination that offers special deals and free Wi-Fi. In 2008, the 9-0 was purchased by four former employees who also co-own Rocco’s Tavern, a restaurant chain that has several locations in Los Angeles. At that time, the 9-0 started serving food from the Rocco’s Tavern menu, and it has since become an essential part of the brand. Barrett said groups of fraternity boys flock to the 9-0 each week for “Wings Wednesday,” and customers rave about the bar’s Italian waffle fries during game days and lunch breaks. Here’s a pro tip for USC students, faculty and staff: If you present a valid university ID, you get 25 percent off your lunch order between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
I visited the 9-0 on a Monday afternoon, and there were only six people sitting at the bar, enjoying pizza and burgers while talking to Barrett as he served them. One man high-fived Barrett when he walked inside, and Barrett asked, “Grapefruit?” and started making the customer’s go-to drink before he could even respond, “Yes please.”
“The bar has two identities in a sense,” Barrett said, distinguishing between the local community and USC students. He explained how few students know the 9-0 has good food because the kitchen closes at 10 p.m., which is before most of them show up. Jeff Swan ‘81 recalls going out to the 9-0 on Thursday nights and for burgers anytime. When Swan was at USC nearly 40 years ago, he said he’d “have lunch, have a great cheeseburger and stay there until dinner and have another cheeseburger.”
There’s even a happy hour special that’s pretty fitting for the bar’s name: two-for-one drinks from 4 to 9:01 p.m. If you can’t make it to the 9-0 during happy hour, there’s a half-priced drink every night: a whiskey mix on Wednesdays, gin and tonic on Thursdays, rum and Coke on Fridays and the famous AMF on Saturdays. Barrett said students usually ask the bartenders, “What’s the drink of the night?” And even if they don’t like it, they’ll order two.
Even after happy hour ends, the party is just getting started. Starting Wednesday nights and carrying on through Saturday, the 9-0 transforms from a bar to a dance party promptly at 10 p.m. Staff members and security guards work together to move tables and chairs out of the way, creating enough space for over a hundred students who will come ready to dance the night away until about 1:45 a.m., when the bar closes.
Music plays a big role in the 9-0’s atmosphere. Austin Roski Amendola is a fourth generation Trojan who frequents the 9-0. He started DJing there when Shawn Miller, the bouncer better known as Big Shawn, heard about his reputation as a talented DJ for his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi.
“I’ve always thought I had a solid taste in music,” Roski Amendola said. “I really don’t even think I’m the best skilled DJ, not by any means. I think honestly where I’m really special is song choice. I feel like I do a really good job playing songs that people forget about, a lot of throwbacks.”
Other students help make Roski Amendola’s playlists on Spotify, or they’ll text him songs they want to hear while he’s DJing. He’s not directly accessible for requests because the DJ booth is raised above the dance floor, and Roski has to climb a ladder to get up there. “It’s a really good time,” he said. “It’s great to sit there and watch all your classmates and buddies and provide that vibe to make people have a good time.”
Part of having a good time means that the students are safe. It may not look like it from the outside, but this dive bar is a well-oiled machine with a big security team: There are six or seven security officers working every night. Barrett said all of the bartenders, barbacks, servers, chefs and managers amount to 22 people working at the 9-0.
When Big Shawn’s not checking IDs at the front door, he’s in an upstairs office managing the security staff. If you’re friends with Big Shawn on Facebook, you can expect a nice message on your birthday. Even if you’re not pals, you might see him at the Mango Deck on your spring break trip to Cabo this year. He’s worked at the 9-0 for 11 years “making sure everyone is safe and has a good time,” which is more than what any other bouncer around USC can say about his relationship with bar staff and USC students.
“You call them students, I call them my children,” Miller said. “I think I’m almost at the Facebook capacity of 5,000 friends. There’s not a student that comes through these doors who I don’t view as a child of mine that I had some hand in help raising, like minding their manners, teaching them to be patient or realizing that you can be in college and have a good time, but don’t be stupid.”
“It’s nice to feel loved by the actual parents, students and alumni,” he said about the “one big family” the 9-0 attracts. “We have an alumni, who goes by Blue, who’s in his 90s that still comes by, and he remembers the 9-0 when it was on Jefferson. Even in the ‘40s, it was still an integral part of the community and the collegiate life. It’s kind of nice to be a part of that.”
When talking about Miller, Barrett described him as a big part of the team. “He is the 9-0,” Barrett said. “He’s the mascot. He’s the first person everyone sees when they walk in the door. He has a great relationship with all the kids. It’s important to him.”
He isn’t the only beloved employee of the 9-0. Domingo Fabre has been bartending at the 9-0 for two “fun, never-a-dull-moment” years.
“I feel there is a lot of love and appreciation for us from the students,” Fabre said. “We support them to the fullest whether it’s sports, academics or fraternities and sororities. We have a great rapport with them.”
The relationships that form at the 9-0 have the promise of lasting a lifetime. Just like the people you meet at USC, you could meet some of your best friends at the 9-0. USC wouldn’t be the same without this bar, according to its regulars.
“It’s part of the school,” said Soven Bery, a senior studying business administration. “It’s really cool to see the 9-0 embrace USC, and USC embrace the 9-0 as well. I can’t really imagine the ‘SC experience without it.”
Roski Amendola echoed that sentiment. “It’s something that you’ll never forget and that you’ll hold close to you for the rest of your life.”
Dylan and Kristena McBride (née Kittle) met at the 9-0 on February 7, 2012. Kristena went with her friend, Katie, who knew Dylan and introduced them. It was a Tuesday night, and Dylan recalls going for $2 Miller Light Night. He bought Kristena a Corona, bravely straying away from the drink of the night special, and the rest is history.
“Katie, who I’d known for about a year at that point—maybe longer, like a year and a half—introduced me to her beautiful friend who also happened to be extremely interesting,” Dylan said as he and Kristena curled up on the couch in their Los Angeles apartment. “We talked for a few hours, and then we went to the finest Figueroa dining establishment: Subway.”
“He bought me a sandwich, I think,” Kristena said.
“Chivalry is not dead,” Dylan said. “And then she kicked my butt at Scramble With Friends like 20 times.”
Dylan and Kristena saw each other at the 9-0 the next day and Thursday. They even celebrated their one-week anniversary on Valentine’s Day at the 9-0.
“I remember sitting at one of those high top tables,” Kristena said. “We had chicken strips, pizza and those waffle fries. And at the time, I thought it was very romantic. We’ve never done another romantic dinner there since—”
“—And we never will,” Dylan said with a laugh.
“But it’s the perfect place to take someone that you’ve only known for a week for Valentine’s Day dinner,” Kristena continued. “Very low pressure.”
The couple dated for six years and four months before tying the knot on June 29, 2018. Now every time Kristena drives by the 9-0, she says, “Hey, that’s where I met my husband!”
“You walk in and know someone to your left, right, all the way to the back. It was so fun to just socialize with everyone there. You’re not just stuck to your frat or your friend group. You see everyone you know at school. Without the 9-0, I don’t know what we would have done because if your frat wasn’t having something, that was the place to go.”
John Silk, Business Administration ‘16