“We put it out to say we’re here for another 60 years,” says owner
By Keemia Zhang
The Hinano Cafe, a Venice institution since 1962, had a new sign put up on February 20th, for the first time in thirty years.
Hinano, originally opened by sailor Joseph Larson, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2022. The sign was painted by Bud Harris, an Inglewood-born local artist who first worked as a bartender at the Cafe when it first opened. Harris, who has long designed lettering for local stalwarts, such as Gold’s Gym, notes that the letter covering the sides is made of “23-karat gold leaf”, reading ‘Hinano Cafe, est. 1962’, against a neatly-plaited brown backdrop.
Mark Van Gessel, the Hinano’s current owner and a frequent sailor himself, asked Harris to redo the heading after he designed the original in ‘62. “We just redid it because COVID’s over, people are coming back”, he says. “We put it out to say we’re here for another 60 years.”
Famed for their burgers, beer, and fresh sawdust floors, the Cafe has a laid-back, seaside atmosphere. “It’s a dive bar, we like to be called that, we’re proud of that fact.” Van Gessel says. Many of its workers contributed to Hinano’s tropical decor – Larson designed the stained-glass work in the windows, while Harris painted a similar logo on a corner table, now covered in fiber-glass, for their 50th anniversary.
“In 1962 there were bars, but they’ve changed names, concepts.” explains Van Gessel, citing the Hinano Cafe as the oldest, long-standing bar in Venice. Harris remarks that “when [he] worked here, a pitcher of beer was $1, a bottle was 25¢, and an imported bottle of Hinano Beer was 65¢ a bottle.”
The Cafe’s origin story has hints of Hollywood – beginning with Joe Larson sailing to Tahiti in the ‘50s during the filming of Marlon Brando’s “Mutiny on the Bounty”. While working on the film as an extra to earn money for his return sail, Larson met with a distributor of Hinano Beer. “Joe worked out a deal with him when he opened the bar, that was the first import of Hinano Beer to the States.”
Larson, born and raised in Venice, opened the Cafe near the Venice Boardwalk. While Harris jokingly refers to Venice at the time as a “slum beach-town”, the neighborhood soon became a happening place, with Hinano hosting the Doors’ Jim Morrison and the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson among its clientele.
“We had Billy Idol actually play here, James Taylor came in here and played – it’s become an iconic little place.” Van Gessel adds. “We used to have Phil Jackson interview basketball players here, cause he knew we wouldn’t leak it out to the press.” Numerous television and film productions, including Baywatch, The China Syndrome, Dexter, and NCIS, have been filmed at Hinano.
Van Gessel purchased the bar alongside Andy Schelich and bartender Lee Glaser. “ I came in after playing roller hockey, sat at the bar, and there was a guy next to me and he said ‘I’m gonna buy this place, I’m gonna gut it and make it a fancy place.’ I said’ ah, that’s awful.’ Picked up my beer, moved down, talked to the bartender – and that’s how I met my partner Andy.”
“[Venice] can be a touristy area, and that’s key, right, but this is a local and a tourist place. Everyone gets along. We treat everyone like family, it’s become a family kind of place” says Van Gessel, comparing the atmosphere to Cheers. “We had to renew our license with the city, and there was a rumor we wouldn’t get it, for some reason. All the locals found out, so when we had our hearing, like 50 or 100 locals showed up to let them know you can’t let Hinano shut down, you gotta keep it open.”
“When I was working here, I learned how to make any kind of hamburger or hot dog – I survived here.” Harris says. Van Gessel and Harris have sought to preserve the bar’s original “feel and vibe”, with Van Gessel stating that he “keep(s) [his] day job to make sure we can survive through the hard times.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was “one of the scariest times to see – all of Venice, all of L.A.” Venice has also grown reportedly more dangerous, but nevertheless, Harris and Van Gessel remain optimistic and proud of the neighborhood. “Venice is family-oriented,” claims Harris. “Everybody knows everybody, except now we’re all 50 years older. We’re excited for its future.”