WHEN DRIVING by the Cock n’ Bull pub, the only thing that makes it stand out from the many other businesses on that stretch of Lincoln Boulevard is the big red British phone booth. The building is a bit old and faded, the door is wide open allowing you a glimpse of the patrons inside, and occasionally a person or two stand outside with plumes of smoke trailing out of their cigarettes. You might pass it by. Los Angeles is a made place furthered by establishments that run on gimmicks instead of authenticity. The Cock n Bull, a rare unpretentious establishment, could have been one of those places.
Julie Bray, who moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, remembers a time when the only patrons at the Cock n Bull pub were elderly British gentlemen. Bray and her friends had a penchant for dive bars, and when they found the pub in 2001 it seemed like perfection - authentic, with excellent Shepherd’s Pie, and decidedly not crowded. “The average number of patrons even on a Friday or Saturday night was about 10,” says Bray, a welcome escape from the popular sweaty crowded dive bars or, perhaps worse, the uncrowded dive bars that were that way for a reason. The Cock n Bull had no reason not to be crowded, and Bray and her friends were not going to be the only ones to discover that.
In the four years they frequented the pub, at any given time, Bray and her friends were the only women in the pub. This earned them the nickname “the girls” from the bartender. “We’d walk in and Dave, one of the bartenders and half owner of the bar, would call out ‘the girls are here,’” Bray says, though the only people there to hear him were the 70-80 year old men who, no matter the time of day, had been drinking for hours.
Given the limited conversation options, Bray spent a lot of time talking to Dave. “He even gave me a ton of barware to use on the tiki bar at my apartment,” says Bray. For her, with its dim lights and unique clientele, it was a haven away from the busy city.
That all changed the day the Cock n Bull was listed on one of the local TV stations as the best sport’s bar in LA, because it would open up at two in the morning every Saturday and Sunday to televise soccer games live from the UK.
“After the television story it became really popular,” recalls Bray, “and it was crowded every night with up and coming hipsters.” Aside from the change in population, the bar’s appearance also took on a new vibe. The beloved Shepherd’s Pie was taken off the menu because it required so much time to prepare, and the bar, once lovingly dim, became more heavily lit. “No dive bar looks better with the lights on,” says Bray. Even the die hard, elderly British men were driven out of their spots.
Before then, the only time the faded walls of the bar had been filled side-to-side was on the night of the Australian Rules Grand Final, an event Bray describes as “the Australian version of the Super Bowl.” Bray only attended one more Grand Final after the television story ran, because though she was used to the crowd on game night, that time she recalls, “The crowd was much different than before. A little edgier, a little angrier. So it was hot, annoying, and a little scary.”
As far as entertainment goes, Bray and her friends did just fine with the televisions, dartboards, and ratty pool tables. Now the pub offers theme nights like Thursday night trivia and “sexy” Tuesday salsa lessons.
Sexy is the last word that comes to mind when picturing the pub. The lights are far too harsh and flickering to be sexy, and so are the clientele. On a recent Friday night, on the far side of the bar, tucked away in a corner a little darker than the rest of the room, are the remnants of the hipsters who came because of the television show. They sit and watch the door, looking each person who comes in up and down, as if they were the ones who discovered the place. Tight pants and beanies, with dyed hair and too cool glances, they thrive in the dark corner like unwelcoming moss.
Another group sits near the door and the dartboard, laughing and talking in voices tinged with British accents. They sit as if they are regulars, and unlike the posing group in the corner, greet visitors with friendly looks. The long bar with it’s tall seats, at first only punctuated with the occasional person, begins to fill up and fill in as the night goes on. Only one bartender works this Friday night. He is Dave, and he recommends the Carlsberg beer and speaks in a soft voice with a heavy accent.
It is the kind of place where you fear to use the ketchup bottles. A modern jukebox, mounted on the wall, is a jarring juxtaposition from the clear, shiny, faded, old beer signs that hang framed on the walls, along with a dartboard and a row of old guns that are lined up on a rafter near the ceiling. Behind that rafter are the pool tables, and a game is going on between a group of men who look like they go to a lot of dive bars. Though more people come in the later it gets, it only hints at the fickle crowds that used to come. Perhaps on game days it picks up.
A mural of John Lennon provides a backdrop for a small raised platform that functions as a stage on live music nights.
The lights are too bright. An elderly British man sits at the bar, eyes glued to the TV, speaking only to dispute football (English, not American) with Dave. He stays there through all of the comings and goings that Friday night, on a stool that wasn’t chosen at random.
And the Shepherd’s Pie is back on the menu.
Photo via Cock n' Bull's Facebook page