Don't sleep on the non-karaoke nights and the fire pit in back.
The rules in Los Angeles, even for dive bars, can be a bit different than in other parts of the country, where even a divey karaoke bar might be expected to demand a cover charge or drink minimum. Not so at Backstage Bar in Culver City west of downtown Los Angeles, where the city’s best karaoke night (arguably) takes place every Thursday through Saturday with no cover, no drink minimum free reservations for large parties and a kitchen that stays open until midnight. This is a good sign.
Though karaoke can sometimes dominate the headlines around Backstage Bar, there is a considerable layer of history here to be uncovered dating back to the Los Angeles dive bar’s opening in 1936. Across the street from what is now Sony Studios, formerly known as MGM Studios, Backstage Bar has long been an after work destination of choice for studio personnel of all types, including, according to the bar itself, the Munchkins who starred in The Wizard of Oz.
The dive bar’s stone façade and blazing neon sign have long been Culver City staples, the towering sign above the front door a slightly more recent addition emblazoned with an “I Love Mom” tattoo-like logo that includes the phrase “dedicated to pleasure.” Living up to their motto, Backstage Bar is open every day without exception, runs a 4 PM to 8 PM daily happy hour and distributes free quesadillas at midnight to anyone still in the building. A photo booth can be found in a corner of the dive bar to document the night’s progression and generally speaking the open floorplan lends itself well to a communal, drink-drenched evening.
Backstage Bar’s menu is more extensive than the typical dive bar, offering an extensive set of entrees, sandwiches, burgers and appetizers. The drink menu is equally intense, a number of signature cocktails with entertaining names offered to fuel late night karaoke. But there is a dive bar here under the cobb salad and Grace Jones pineapple rum cocktail, drink prices affordable by Los Angeles standards made all the more so by a happy hour that knocks prices down even further. The exterior in particular has been left to its own organic devices, allowed to show some of the wear and tear that comes with decades of operation.
The biggest crowds assemble for karaoke of course, the clientele running a bit younger on those evenings, making for even more eclectic than usual song selection. There isn’t so much stage here as there is an “area” designated for karaoke where a fixed DJ booth sits next to a patch of flooring reserved for the singer of the moment. Lyrics are broadcast throughout the building, encouraging massive singalongs that probably don’t need much encouragement as the hours tick by. With so little separating singer and crowd, the feeling here is very much a community, let’s-butcher-this-song-together vibe, which only adds to a night of karaoke.
When the tables aren’t pushed away to make room for a frenzied Backstreet Boys singalong, tall cocktail-like tables can be found throughout the space, complete with faux candles that make for a classy vibe by dive bar standards. The long bar can be found toward the front of the space and though the crowd can get thick during karaoke, this location removed from the densest portion of the assembled crowd makes for a decently reasonable turnaround time on grabbing a beer.
Never to be overlooked in Los Angeles, free parking is available along adjacent Culver City Boulevard after 6 PM. The bar typically opens at 11 AM each day, but opens early when Seattle Seahawks games require it, serving as Los Angeles’ de facto headquarters for the team’s fans. Seahawks logos and gear can be found throughout the space, leaving no confusion over the bar’s allegiance.