Exploring the Artifacts of Sassafras

Photos by Hagop Kalaidjian

Walk into Sassafras and it's like you've absentmindedly strolled through a time portal. Ragtime music plays from vintage speakers, old-fashioned speciality cocktails are being sipped, and Southern comfort food is being devoured. To be fair, this isn't a new feeling to L.A., which seemingly has a new old-fashioned cocktail joint opening every weekend. But what's different about this latest venture from The 1933 Group -- the folks behind Atwater's beloved Bigfoot Lounge, Highland Park's La Cuevita, and Silver Lake's Thirsty Crow -- is the incredible attention to interior design detail.

"Every single thing in here is repurposed, recycled, antique or architectural salvage," says Bobby Green, the bar's designer. "The only new stuff we had to buy were some paints, some two-by-fours for structural stuff, some nails, and that's really it." As a way to bring the feeling of New Orleans to L.A., Green spent two years traveling the world of thrift shops, antique malls, reconsignment stores, and everywhere in between to find the glorious treasures on display. Here are his favorite finds and why:

"One of the first things we found, and one of the only things we found in L.A., is that painting of Frederick Douglass. Which is funny because he's the most Southern thing we have in this place and we found it at the Rose Bowl. The guy was amazing. He was born a slave, but he became this prolific abolitionist, and a scholar, and he had a huge hand in freeing the slaves with Lincoln. It was really poignant that we found that. It's beautiful, and kind of makes a statement if you know who he was."

"During my buying trips to the South I got in good with a bunch of architectural salvage places, and told them I needed a bunch of old windows. So this guy tells me he's going to have a lot of stuff because he's tearing down this house in Savannah, Georgia. So I had him ship me out everything and we ended up just putting the entire house up in the middle of the bar. Like, why not? There's actually a second floor up there, but it belongs to the guy upstairs."

"I bought that on Magazine Street in New Orleans, and it was like twenty bucks or something. And it's the only lamp I've ever seen that has a clock, and an ashtray, and a cigar lighter all in one. It's ridiculous."

"The stools are old cast-iron with a white porcelain enamel coating, and they were used in soda fountains and ice cream parlors and bars. I found a bunch of them at antique car swap meets for nothing, like ten bucks a piece. I found a few on Craigslist, some on eBay, a few at the Rose Bowl. Finally we had about twenty, so we bolted them into the ground around the bar."

"That spinning laundry rack came from New York. It was in a junkyard, and this crazy steam-punk guy I met online had it. I didn't know what I was going to do with it, but I wanted it. It took awhile to figure out where to put it and how to make it work. We ended up restoring it, getting all new wheels, a new motor, chain, the whole bit. At some point we figured out to put all of the barrel-aged cocktails on it and have it rotate. It's perfect."

"This is one of my favorite parts, the communal sink. It came from an old sanitarium in, I think, Shreveport. They were dismantling this old abandoned sanitarium. And, naturally, I had to get old soap dispensers."

"The one thing I was insistent upon having, that no place in Los Angeles has, are the old wooden gravity-fed toilets. I remember being a kid and going to one of my friend's grandparents house, and they still had one in their house. They soon went out of existence. By the mid-70s, you just never saw them anymore. But they work great. They're fully-functional. And the water flushes better than a modern toilet because of gravity. It's almost a turbo-flush toilet."

"That's actually a turn-of-the-century female urinal. I don't know exactly what decade it's from, but there was a time when that was a trend with females. They didn't have to sit down. They'd just lift their skirt and kind of straddle it. Obviously, the trend didn't last very long."

"I have a lot of design pet peeves, and one of them is when these places open that try to recreate the past, and they're these gorgeous places, but they always have brand-new exit signs. It just drives me crazy. Because I want to be fully immersed when I go into these places. So I found vintage exit signs and rewired them to make them work."

"The bear is very close to my heart. The display case came from an old warehouse in downtown L.A. that was closing. There's a great old tapestry in the background, it's American Indians about to pounce on these explorers roaming down the river. And the bear itself is an old family heirloom, it's been in my family forever. I was talking to my dad, and I told him I was looking for some really cool old stuff, and he says, well, you know your great-uncle was a Knights Templar back in the 40s and 50s. He was really big in his lodge. So he sent me this ceremonial sword, and this crazy apron with the skull and crossbones on it, and this sash with all the medals, and this hat with the cross. I guess the Knights Templar were like the Masons but a little more religious. So I got the stuff, and I was a little worried. I didn't know if it was taboo to display it. So I called my friend who's a Mason, and told him, and he's like, oh yeah, they're going to love that. In fact, they'll probably come to your bar because of it."

"Both of the bars are circa 1922. The main one came from Connecticut, and the back one from Arizona. The big one was so big, we couldn't fit it in here. We had to cut it down by about three feet. The architectural salvage company had no idea where it was from, but it must have been in a giant hotel ballroom or something massive."

"That was one of the very first ideas I had. I wanted a kind of riverboat gambling element to the bar. You have two choices. If you don't know what you want to drink, you can spin the outer wheel for your cocktail. With the inner wheel, you can risk how much it costs. Every cocktail is 12 dollars, but if you feel like gambling you can spin it, and get it anywhere from free to double the price. I actually did the odds, and I wanted it to not be in the house's favor, so it's actually 60% chance, in the customer's favor, that you'll get your drink for 12 bucks or less."

"This sign came from one of Al Capone's bars in Chicago, just post-Prohibition. Capone created the Canadian Ace beer label because during Prohibition he was bringing stuff from Canada. So, as soon as it ended, he created the legitimate Canadian Ace beer company. It's great that it's separated by double-blend and bonded whiskies. That's something you never see anymore. The place I got it from, they were dismantling a building and that sign was boarded up inside of a wall. So there's a good chance all those prices are pre-War era."

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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