L.A.'s Hotel Café is favored haunt for singer-songwriters

Intimate Hollywood club is becoming a breaking ground for new artists.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The first time people encounter The Hotel Café, a Hollywood venue that's gaining renown for breaking new singer-songwriters, there's usually confusion over the name. "People say to me, 'Is it a hotel or a cafe?' " chuckles Lenka, a Hotel Café performer who recently made her television debut on Conan O'Brien's show. "It's neither! It doesn't really matter about the name – once it's out there and becomes a brand, it just gets known."

When two would-be screenwriters opened the Hotel Café as a modest coffee shop, they had no idea it would become a music venue, much less a brand name. Today, the venue serves stronger drinks than it did back in 2000. And the owners, Max Mamikunian and Marko Shafer, have yet to finish a script. But the intimate space has a reputation for a particular musical style, namely acoustic-based female songwriters such as Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Priscilla Ahn, and Meiko.

"[The Hotel Café] could capitalize on this sound for a couple of years," says Shirley Halperin, senior music writer at Entertainment Weekly.

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Indeed, Mr. Mamikunian and Mr. Shafer are branding their venue's reputation with Richard Branson-like diversity. The Hotel Café Tour, now in its fourth year, will dispatch its first all-female lineup to over 30 cities this month. On the home front, the Hotel Café's record label is about to follow up a recent Starbucks compilation with a female-star Christmas album. The venue's roster of artists will receive additional exposure once iTunes launches "Live From the Hotel Café" downloads.

The Hotel Café's influence is way out of proportion to its actual size. The dimly lit venue, hidden behind an alleyway, resembles a Parisian tavern and only holds 200 people. The stage, lavishly swathed in the sort of red curtain usually only reserved for Baz Luhrmann movies, is barely higher than the half-dozen tables. "It's a very comfortable place to play," marvels Lenka, who will be on the Hotel Café Tour. "It's a little bit like someone's lounge room, particularly if it's not full."

That hushed vibe dates back to the café's beginnings. After Sept. 11, business was so slow that the owners invited friends to play music. Soon, the likes of Brett Dennen were playing for a handful of people. Later, when someone called up claiming to represent Weezer, Mamikunian and Shafer assumed it was a joke until the band showed up and nervously miked their guitars. Nowadays, you never know when John Mayer will play a secret show or Pink will get on stage to jam. Mamikunian recalls a night when he was surprised to discover Bonnie Raitt sound-checking.

Despite so many talked-about shows, the Hotel Café hasn't turned into a self-conscious hipster hangout. And the audience won't flutter if Catherine Heigl comes to watch her husband, Josh Kelley, play.

"It's not very scene-y and I think that's what I kind of like about it," says Ms. Halperin. "I like that, on any given night, it could be two, three, four, five completely different scenes."

In fact, the venue is careful to diversify its music. "We have a lot of [performers] come through here who have never touched an acoustic guitar," says Shafer. "So, if people are no longer interested in the acoustic songwriter thing, I think naturally the music will evolve and we'll still be here with our doors open."

If anything, the duo wants to open a second Hotel Café in another city. Could a new franchise – one that might be dubbed "The Lite Rock Café" – be far behind?

"One of the initial concerns we have about opening more venues is whether we'll lose what makes this place special," says Mamikunian. "[But] when we started thinking about getting involved in the life of a city and music of a city and providing a venue that wasn't just a cheesy, cookie-cutter version of what we'd done before ... we were, like, 'yes, we can do this.' "

Shafer adds, "Maybe in 10 years, when things are up and running, we'll go back to writing."

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