The Doheny: Dan Wilcox & the “Secret” Club

When I was a mere clubbing pup at the age of 19, I was living in Seattle and going out to my first nightclubs. Among them was the Weathered Wall, a very early 90s bordello-styled venue that had been around for a while in various formations but was made more exciting by a simple twist: instead of entering through the front door like you were meant to, you went through the back alley, which gave the party a feeling of danger and uncertainty. What were we doing in this seedy back alley? What sort of world was awaiting us inside? 
I found out later, after I moved to New York, that my friends who threw that party, called Lemon Twist, had ripped off this time-honored trick from New York City promoters. It’s an easy way to enliven a space that otherwise might seem like any old bar. It’s something the people behind the Doheny, one of several downtown “private” speakeasy-type bars have figured out. When we went to see KCRW DJ Dan Wilcox during one of his bi-weekly gigs, the only way we were alerted to the presence of the bar was a simple street sign: a key pointing in one direction that said “Private.”

We drove through a weird narrow tunnel inside a building and ended up in a parking lot on the other side. We walked, yes, through an alley, and came upon a doorman wearing a fedora. There was a sign that instructed us not to take any pictures, and that cellphone use (talking, not texting) was forbidden. The setup is supposed to make you feel special, like you’ve entered an exclusive enclave. The drinks, meticulously made cocktails with extravagant names and a half-dozen ingredients priced in the $15 range, are supposed to make you feel high-class or extremely poor, depending on your vantage point.

The setting is the way I like it: dark and moody, wood and leather, old lamps, soft lighting. It’s a hallmark of all of Cedd Moses’s places (he owns Seven Grand, Golden Gopher, etc.). We arrived on the earlier side, and took in the sounds from Wilcox; he spun some Hall & Oates mixed with Beatconductor (“I Can’t Go For That”), Marvin Gaye “Heavy Love Affair (The Revenge Rework),” and Justin Timberlake vs. Daft Punk “Sexy Daft (Around the World).”

The crowd was a mix — I’d noticed during our dinner earlier that I’d never seen such messy drunk people in Los Angeles as I’d seen Downtown. Perhaps because those that lived there could play there without fear of driving and went bananas in the process. Downtown is the closest approximation in Los Angeles to an urban existence; due to the overwhelming homeless population (many of whom have mental health and drug problems), it’s a bit too urban. A few of those messy drunk people found their way into the Doheny and got a little messier and drunker, weaving their way through the snaky hallway and collapsing right into me.

The crowd didn’t really have a single thread running through it. A friend pointed out you couldn’t really say what kind of people come to the Doheny or Downtown in general. In Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Los Feliz, you can pinpoint the scene by the different gradations of hipsterdom. In Santa Monica, it’s pretty yuppie. Hollywood, it’s mainstream weekend warriors. Downtown seems to lack a core identity.

At a certain point, the crowd shaped up to be the Friends of Dan Wilcox. “Everyone comes all at once,” he explained. And by midnight, they did. I’ve never understood this about cities where the bars close at 2am; in New York, if you go out at midnight, you have many more hours to get very wasted. Anywhere else, you only have two hours. If you’re in Seattle, which is fascist about getting everyone out by 2am, you have an hour and a half.

Still, the DJ soon had a line of people waiting to greet him, and he amiably greeted them all, even if he was about to be in the middle of a mix. Wilcox is a funny self-deprecating type. In his most recent email promoting the event, he recommended the drink Pumpkin Batida (made with Cabana Cacacha — Brazilian Rum, pumpkin puree with cinnamon and nutmeg, sweetened condensed milk, lime), adding, that it’s the “perfect drink for those blustery fall nights we are known for here in Los Angeles … where it may dip all the way down to the low 60s … real weenie-shrinker type weather.”

Yes, once you get used to perfection, it’s hard to accept anything less. Wilcox also told me in an email after our visit, “I think it is the cocktails that sets that place apart,” nothing the Walnut Manhattan is a particular favorite. “It certainly isn’t that amateur-ass DJ they have.” We would beg to disagree.

Dan Wilcox plays again this Friday (and every other Friday until the end of time) at the Doheny. {encode=” ” title=”RSVP here”}.

Email tips to {encode=”” title=””}.

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