Party Holly

Downtown Hollywood's a little weird, but we like it that way

The soulful Latin performer strumming his guitar in front of Hollywood's Chocolada restaurant on Sunday night has the sidewalk tables packed. Above, a gentle breeze flutters the branches that canopy the tree-lined strip. Across the way, a couple embraces in a doorway next to a window display of hocked electric guitars at Ready-Cash Pawn. The man's yellow dog pants softly.

Nearby, at O'Hara's, a jazz band plays behind a full-voiced diva singing Oleta Adams' "Get Here" to a group of slow-dancing couples in front of the stage, while on the corner of Young Circle, a dark-haired man puffs a hookah at a table outside the falafel and gyro restaurant.

The past six months or so have ushered in at least five new bars and clubs in Hollywood: Sonar, Zombie, Club XIT, Nikki Marina, and a bare-bones joint called Duck-Inn. Sneakers, which has been around for quite a while, is tarting its décor up a bit to keep pace. Hell, we've even got bar-top dancers at Coyote Bar and Grille strutting in the same old belly-baring tanks. These chicks are honest about their seminudity, though; they've got dollar bills pouring from their belt loops.

Sorry if I neglected any other new places, but this I-95-ramp-side city -- which has never been the hub of South Florida nightlife -- is blowing up. The storefronts on this strip have such a variety of strong flavors that only people with the most diverse tastes could meander from one venue to the next. It's a mind-fucking task to divide my attention between the muscular, tattooed, domestic-beer-drinking man pouring out of the Octopus Garden (1942 Hollywood Blvd.) and the disconcerting fact that there are velvet ropes on Hollywood Boulevard.

My expectations were low when I arrived at the ropes outside Sonar on Friday night at midnight. But when I put some questions to In Bal, the tall woman with blond, curly hair at the door who turned out to be the owner, she did something I was not prepared for: She thought for a moment, then gave straightforward, discerning answers. Bal, who moved to Florida from New York last year and opened the club three months ago with her brother and sister, began, "On Saturday and Sunday, you'll hear New York underground music in here that you would never hear in South Beach. Space and Crobar do not compare."

So why Hollywood, then?

"I did my research," she replies. "The amount of money I spend here is a lot less than I would spend in South Beach or Palm Beach. And this area is about to go crazy. Next year, there is going to be a huge turnaround. Hollywood has amazing plans for local business. My club does not really get tourists. It's not seasonal."

She invites me in to have a look around. Walking into the dark club, it seemed like the walls were closing in around me. Sonar is like a large cell, lighted only by the red glow that comes through the plastic bar top, which we visited for some refreshment. A red spiral staircase leads up toward the DJ booth and another room -- VIP, I presume -- but I didn't visit. Chicks with mod haircuts and tattered jeans were working behind the bar, serving drinks to a crowd of 60 hipsters and goths who were wearing 90 percent black -- many of them in the dark-eyed fetish style that is a throwback to the days when Squeeze and the Edge ruled Fort Lauderdale. On the dance platform in the back of the club, a woman in thick-heeled boots and a stiff black tutu was entranced by Morrissey's moans echoing off the walls.

I slip into the bathroom to find a girl with long red hair kneeling in front of the sink. "Usually, we hang out at fetish parties and Kitchen Club in Miami," she says. "But now we come here on Friday nights." I look down and notice that her breasts are hanging out of her shirt.

"What are you doing?" I ask her.

"I'm duct-taping my nipples."

Jolly good. I head back out to the main room of the club and find that a New Order song is playing. It makes me feel cozy, and I start dancing with my friend Lola. We're watching some short, bespectacled girl getting totally into her groove, and it's hard not to notice how unpolished yet cool are her moves. She seems more bent on enjoying herself than expressing herself or attracting anyone. It's cool. We're doing the same.

Until...

A shark in a blue button-down shirt -- whom I've already graciously allowed to dance in my space and dismissed -- hovers. Lola and I find it necessary to look only at each other and bite our lips to keep from laughing. Gentlemen, this means go the hell away. He's not getting it, though, but just kind of standing off to the side of us, trying to make eye contact. Lola busts up laughing, and he notices. I close in on her and start laughing too. The man disappears behind the bar.

Poor bastard, I think, until he circles back around with his fingers pointed like guns. Jesus Cristo, por favor. You can't even shame a man these days. It's back to the bar to slam another vodka cran. We overlook the dark scene with a nod of approval, and we're out.

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