Where I Go: L.A.’s Oldest Standing Black-Owned Bar

I Didn’t Know How to Make a Cadillac Margarita. The Living Room Still Offered Me a Job—And a Community

Within the walls of the Living Room in South L.A., you’ll find karaoke, cocktails, and community. Bartender Shivonne Peart on what makes the cocktail lounge a special place. The Living Room sign. Courtesy of Lea L.

The Living Room is the oldest standing Black-owned bar in Los Angeles. Located in the heart of the West Adams district and previously known as Barry’s Cocktail Lounge, the bar has silently woven itself into the fabric of South L.A. since its founding in the 1940s.

Though I’ve lived in the same neighborhood as the Living Room my whole life, I didn’t learn of its existence until I was 30.

It began with a simple Yelp search.

That year, I decided to leave behind the inertia of my corporate career in hospitality to pursue a dream: returning to school to study journalism. I was looking for work near my home to help support my son and me while I followed this ambition. When I searched for businesses near me, the Living Room popped up, located just three minutes away from my home.

The author (left) and the Living Room’s owner Susan Carnell. Courtesy of author.

The photos on the Living Room’s Yelp page were somewhat outdated, but I liked the vibe that they gave off. The environment seemed relaxed; the crowd, who appeared older, didn’t come off as too “Hollywood.” I dialed the number listed on the website. The conversation that followed with Susan, the owner—who had herself tended bar there in her earlier years—was my first step into a world that I had never known, yet immediately felt connected to.

I’d gone to bartending school years earlier, but had never picked up gigs before. I had decided at the time that my hospitality work was a more important use of my time (how ironic, right?). So, during the call with Susan, I puffed up my experience, citing expertise from hosting private events and past restaurant service. Though my skills were confined to informal settings, like bartending at my sister’s parties, the determination in my voice must have landed me the interview.

Then came the reality check. Susan asked me to make a Cadillac margarita. The drink I mixed, though it reflected my earnest effort, lacked its defining Grand Marnier topping. Her reaction was direct: “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, do you?”

I laughed, admitting my inexperience, and promised to learn quickly. Impressed by my honesty and willingness to learn, Susan offered me a chance to train with their seasoned bartenders the next day. She wasn’t just offering me a job, but an invitation to become part of a community and a legacy.

As I sit on a couch in the Living Room writing this piece now, I am surrounded by the familiar faces of customers who have become like family to me.

The Living Room proved to be the perfect environment for balancing my studies and parental duties. Once I became comfortable with the bar (and finally learned to make drinks without having to Google the recipes first), I started bringing my laptop to work, utilizing any downtime to study and complete my assignments. Many of my customers turned out to be leading educators and writers, and they helped me with my schoolwork. One retired professor who frequented the bar, in particular, provided invaluable feedback on my writing. Since it had been about 13 years since I last attended school, I was grateful for the support.

The Living Room mirrors the comfort of a real living room. Courtesy of author.

I had been working at the Living Room for about a year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It hit us hard. Bars were one of the first types of businesses to shut down and among the last to reopen, and the Living Room faced additional challenges since we didn’t have an outdoor area that was required to continue operating. Undeterred, we transformed one of our parking lots into an outdoor dining experience. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, we were denied loans and grants, making it an uphill battle to keep the establishment afloat. But neighbors and regulars rallied to support us, transforming adversity into an opportunity for solidarity. They hired food trucks to come to the parking lot and worked with restaurants to donate tables and chairs for a patio-style bar. They chipped in to get us a big-screen TV so that we could still watch sports, and somebody even built a TV unit with wheels for easy transport.

Leveraging my own skills, I took charge of the Living Room’s social media presence, using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to reconnect with our community and attract new patrons. This digital push helped bring back the vibrant life of the bar post-lockdown, drawing in both loyal locals and newcomers intrigued by the charm and history that the Living Room offered.

Thanks to this persistence and community support, the Living Room is still here, representing the enduring spirit of the people it brings together.

As I sit on a couch in the Living Room writing this piece now, I am surrounded by the familiar faces of customers who have become like family to me. Observing their interactions and shared joy, I’m reminded of the countless memories that we’ve created together within these walls.

The Living Room has become the place I go when I need to lift my spirits or seek a moment of solace with a refreshing cocktail or just someone to talk to. It’s a venue that accommodates various aspects of my life—from intimate moments on a first date, where a deck of cards can lead to a deep connection, to lively gatherings with friends and coworkers. It’s where I celebrate life’s milestones—every birthday, graduation, and this year, my acceptance into grad school to get my master’s in mass communication.

Fridays at the Living Room are for karaoke, where my friends and I revel in the joy of singing our hearts out in a comfortable and familiar setting. On Saturdays, the live band draws in music enthusiasts, creating a vibrant atmosphere that’s perfect for a night out.

In a neighborhood that’s often marginalized, the Living Room serves as a lifeline. Despite West Adams’ rich cultural and historical significance, it continues to contend with economic disparities, historical neglect, and ongoing gentrification pressures. This makes the Living Room’s presence even more vital, providing emotional and social support to those who walk through its doors.

Its warm and welcoming atmosphere mirrors the comfort of a real living room. It’s set up like one, too, with couches, chandeliers, and TVs. It even has a doorbell: You have to ring it to get buzzed in, the act inviting you to enter and find a reprieve from the chaos of everyday life. For those seeking a place that feels like home, the Living Room has my unwavering recommendation, a beacon of hope and togetherness in South L.A.

Shivonne Peart is a graduate student in mass communication at California State University, Northridge, and an aspiring educator. She brings her passion for community and learning to her role as a bartender at the Living Room.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Jackie Mansky | SECONDARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey
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