If you want a good glimpse of the secret history of Los Angeles – the hidden corruption, money and back room deals that built this city – a good place to start is a small restaurant on the edge of downtown called the Pacific Dining Car.
Just follow Wilshire Blvd east towards the river. A few blocks before you hit the Harbor Freeway, you’ll see a statue of a black cow overlooking a yellow train car. It’ll look like a harmless, novelty tourist spot, which it is. But rule number one in L.A. is don’t be fooled by outer appearances. Around since 1921, this iconic steakhouse has been the meeting ground for almost a century’s worth of politicians, reporters, cops, gamblers, and all matter of crooks and crime bosses.
I’ve always been drawn to the Pacific Dining Car for just that reason. It’s a locus point for the shadier side of L.A. power deals. The series I write, “Twelve Stakes”, is set in the city’s supernatural underground and my main character, Jack Strayhorn, is a vampire who’s been around long enough to straddle both old and new Los Angeles. He was a detective with the LAPD back in the 1940s, so he’s seen the city undergo some seismic shifts. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is his favorite steak house.
The place has “smoky back room deal” written all over it. Heavy wood paneling, brass fixtures, Tiffany-style lamps. It’s dark, open all night, and anybody is liable to show up. It’s a perfect haunt for all manner of vampires and a good inspiration for the mood of my series.
But this place also has a family connection for me. The Pacific Dining Car is where my great-grandfather would be summoned to with a phone call at three in the morning any time infamous mob boss and drug lord Mickey Cohen was in the mood for a drink during his all-night, marathon poker games. Edmund Hewlett was a bartender, night club owner, and all around entrepreneur who happened to make a martini just the way Cohen liked. He was also the only bartender the gangster trusted to mix his drinks without poisoning him.
I can sit at that same back bar and wonder what that Los Angeles was like for my great-grandfather. How did he feel as a black man walking in there in the middle of the night to meet a man who could end him with one word? How did he keep his cool and get the job done?
As Mickey Cohen lifted his martini to his lips, did Edmund wonder if he'd made it dry enough? Or if this would this be the time he wouldn't make it back home to his wife and four young children he dragged from their hometown in New Orleans in search of the promised good life in Los Angeles?
And what did he think about this mobster who muscled his way to the top of the crime world after Bugsy Siegel was gunned down on the other side of town? Maybe Cohen reminded my great-grandfather of the tornados he'd left behind in the South. Like he was a force of nature and the smartest thing to do was keep his head down until the danger blew over.
Obviously Edmund made it out alive, or I wouldn't be here asking these questions. But imagine the relief he must have felt when Mickey Cohen was finally sent up state for a lengthy, career-ending stay in prison.
I love stories like this because they're my way of plugging into that same dark energy my great-grandfather must've felt riding along the tense and empty Los Angeles streets in the middle of the night, on his way to what could be his own death. When I'm writing Jack, I channel that feeling and I see myself in my grandfather's shoes, driving down my own dark road and seeing a side of Los Angeles that scares me and thrills me in equal measure.