Long Beach's Pine Avenue has had its ups and downs over the last few decades. After a determined rebirth in the 1990s, a tide of prosperity rolled into the time-worn neighborhood with a bustling night life scene. That tide receded with newer developments elsewhere around town, and Pine Avenue fell into an awkward state of transition as it struggled to compete with amenities such as a Ferris wheel and a world class aquarium.
However, the newly opened Federal Bar aims to bring revelers back to Pine Avenue by offering a restaurant and a music venue in the cavernous yet elegant Security Pacific National Bank building.
Much like downtown Los Angeles' sprawling Last Bookstore, Federal Bar has taken the shell of a monument to pre-Depression wealth and transformed it into something the original architects never would have imagined. The three-story ceilings are adorned with delicate frescoes framed by impossibly long windows and ornate wood fixtures that combine for a unique dining space that can accommodate nearly 300 place settings while a long bar at the front competes with another, low-lit bar in the back.
The Madison steakhouse occupied the space for more than a decade but closed last December. "I came down to Long Beach and hoped I wouldn't love the building," says Knitting Factory Entertainment CEO Morgan Margolis. "Unfortunately for the stress level, I fell in love with the building and the street that it was on. I did everything to step away from it." Instead, he signed the lease in March and opened the Federal Bar less than two months later.
Knitting Factory Entertainment started in the 1980s as a fringe music club in Lower Manhattan that gradually expanded to include several venues, including a record label, tour management company and a now-closed club on Hollywood Boulevard. Only in the last few years has the company branched into restaurants, a move that began in part with the arrival of Margolis, who joined the company in 2000.
While enjoying a beer and a bite in the Federal Bar, the restaurant's connection with such a prominent independent music brand isn't immediately apparent, apart from the rock 'n' roll unobtrusively emanating from the speakers. Somewhat counterintuitively, Margolis says the company is moving into the realm of hospitality while trying to avoid piggybacking on its reputation.
"I equate it to when you go to a movie. You aren't necessarily paying attention to the producer. I want it to be known but I don't want it to be pounded into people's heads. I want the Federal brand to have its own legs," Margolis says. "I'm not going to the Troubadour for a beer, you know? I wanted to build a neighborhood bar and restaurant with the music as part of it."
The Long Beach nightspot is not Knitting Factory's first move into this new realm. In early 2011, the first Federal Bar opened in a former 1920s bank in North Hollywood, offering up dozens of draft beers and a mid-size, second floor performance space. The strongest indication of the Knitting Factory brand lies in its calendar, which features DJs, indie rock groups and the occasional big band.
Pine Avenue's Federal Bar features 26 beers on tap and a menu as sprawling as its floor space. Generous portions of short-rib poutine take comfort food to a new level, and the juicy lamb chops have a snap of fennel and garlic that could satisfy power lunchers and curious tourists, depending on the time of day. For now, the space is primarily operating as a restaurant but the Knitting Factory stamp will be all over the downstairs.
The nighttime demographic on Pine Avenue currently skews young, but Margolis is looking to attract a more mature scene in the Federal Bar's basement with a blend of local jazz acts and touring rock bands to reverberate amid the giant vault doors embedded in the walls. If that isn't enough, a suitable nod to the building's mid-1920s roots is also in the works — a speak-easy featuring an expansive list of quality cocktails and classic technique with the hopes of garnishing their first gimlet before the end of the summer.
"I'd like to bring a tremendous product to Long Beach," Margolis says. "[The Federal is] very food-oriented but we want to bring an entertainment element to it. We're not coming as the shining savior of the neighborhood. We're just trying to bring a place where people can get away from their work environment and enjoy themselves."