Tired of the bottle service-heavy, interaction-light nightlife of Los Angeles, best friends Marc Rose (left) and Med Abrous (right) opened the Spare Room, a unique lounge in the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, early last year. The lounge features bespoke cocktails, vintage bowling alleys, and a variety of gorgeous handcrafted board games. The combination has proven wildly successful among partiers looking to socially network without staring at pixelated screens. We asked the innovative duo how they managed to get Angelenos to put down their iPhones and pick up their Scrabble tiles.
Where are you from and how did you get here?
Marc Rose: Born and raised in Brooklyn. I was a diehard New Yorker, never thought I would leave. I went to NYU’s Tisch school and majored in drama. I got involved in nightlife from a young age. I was promoting and throwing parties, and I helped to open a very popular club in the ‘90s called Life. Then I left it all. I was 24 or 25 and I took off and came to LA to pursue an acting career. I got off to a great start and worked at it for a number of years before I found my way back into this business. While I was here I also started a creative marketing agency called Treehouse. I realized that I was using my ideas to further other people’s brands, when I really wanted to create a brand of my own, which is how the Spare Room came to be. We really consider the Spare Room more than a bar. We consider it a brand.
Med Abrous: I was born in Manhattan, but I have been out in LA for almost ten years now, which seems crazy. For about seven years I have been the director of bars for Thompson Hotels, which are based here in LA at the Roosevelt. Besides having a background in the hospitality industry, Marc and I are best friends. We always wanted to open a bar together, so we finally did.
Where did the concept for an upscale gaming lounge come from?
Marc Rose: We had friends who were no longer going out because the experience became really just about bottle service, people on their cell phones, and no one interacting with each other anymore. The idea of going out was supposed to be the social life, but no one was really socializing with one another. And our friends were looking for a place that was somewhere between a restaurant and a nightclub. So that’s why we wanted to create this lounge. We found ourselves in people’s homes in the Hollywood Hills and they’d have dinner and then set up a game. It would really bring out the best and the worst in people. We always say that you never get to learn about people more than when you compete against them. We wanted to create a place and an atmosphere where people can drink and have fun, but also where they can whip out a game and compete against each other, or against strangers. It was about talking to each other, looking at each other, not looking at your phone the whole time.
Med Abrous: Exactly. In examining the landscape of nightlife in LA, we found that there has been a void. There was nowhere for people to go to interact socially that wasn’t a nightclub or a restaurant. There was nothing in between. We developed the idea of the Spare Room and found that we can create a place that is vibrant and lively, but where people can actually talk and interact, and the common thread that we found was games. It seems so simple, but it breaks down a lot of boundaries that people have for themselves, and when they come in groups.
It seems to encourage a level of engagement that is both old fashioned and refreshing.
Marc Rose: I think the number one misconception is that people think we are a throwback or retro bar, and we are not. We are just trying to reintroduce the classics to people and reinvigorate the sense of community. The best thing is when strangers challenge each other to a game. And whether they compete for fun, or they compete for the loser to buy the winner a drink, it is a win-win for us.
What kinds of games do you have there now? I know there are a couple of vintage bowling lanes. What else do you have?
Marc Rose: The bowling lanes are the star of the show. They are a couple of old lanes that we went down to Texas and found from the foremost collector and supplier of bowling equipment. We restored them to their original beauty. As far as the other games go, we offer everything from backgammon to chess, checkers, Connect Four, Yahtzee, Jenga, Mancala, Monopoly, Scrabble, and various card games. But these are not the games that you can just go and purchase at a store. All the games are handmade. We worked with local craftsman to customize or completely custom-make the games we have. We have Monopoly sets that are plaid and suede, or leather, and Scrabble sets that are made from various acrylics. We have a custom-made Connect Four set made from walnut. These are games you’d want to put out on your coffee table. We feel like gaming is a lifestyle. We hope that people take the idea home, and that’s why we are in discussion to create our own line of games and selling them separately.
The competitive element brings out the best and worst in people, but hopefully mostly the best.
Marc Rose: But even if it is the worst, that’s ok too, because it is good to learn that about people. We have seen some first dates go really bad at the Spare Room, which is interesting.
That must introduce an interesting dynamic. If the girl beats the guy five times in a row, his ego is going to be hurt.
Marc Rose: Right, and we have also seen it become a great icebreaker. I think another big thing about the Spare Room in general is that we opened it inside of a hotel, which is where we see this brand growing. We are in discussions now in some other markets to open the Spare Room, but it would only be in a hotel. We see this as a great amenity to a hotel guest, as well as a great local scene. We feel like these are rooms that our parents and grandparents had, and we sort of missed out a little bit. We are trying to bring that element of activity back.
Can you tell me a little more about the cocktail program?
Marc Rose: Our beverage director is Naomi Schimek and she is amazing. I refer to her as our chef more than our beverage director and bartender because she is constantly pushing the envelope. We paid so much attention to the little details of this place, down to the scoring pads and the scoring pencils, so the cocktails needed to match that. We don’t consider ourselves at all to be a pretentious cocktail bar. We are very proud of the cocktails we offer and the ingredients we use and the spirits we choose, but our idea is to help to educate people who don’t know everything about cocktails. We don’t want to intimidate people. We want people to learn and have fun.
Med Abrous: Absolutely. The most important thing for us is to provide a great service. The cocktail program that we have is always changing. There are a lot of cocktail bars that look down their noses at people, and that doesn’t make for the most pleasant experience. We make handcrafted cocktails accessible. We are a high-volume cocktail bar. It is important for us to get cocktails out in a timely manner, but also that they are made with the utmost quality and care. By no means are we a farm-to-table cocktail bar, where there are tons of greenery and fruits. We do use all fresh fruits, but we try to highlight the flavors of the spirit rather than covering the spirit up with a ton of seasonal ingredients. Our cocktail menu is divided into two sets: the classics, which we switch seasonally, and our original cocktails.
How would you handle someone who wants to try something new but doesn’t really know what they want?
Marc Rose: People come in and we ask “What do you normally like to drink” or “What are you interested in trying?” We are ok with giving samples to people. I always tell our bartenders that if someone doesn’t like something, make them something that they will like. Something new that we are about to put in the space is a customer recipe library. If you came in and you created a drink with a bartender, our bartenders would help you to name that cocktail, and would record that in a little library card catalog behind the bar so that every time you come in it will be filed under your name.
What is your favorite game to play when you are at the bar?
Marc Rose: I am a big Yahtzee fan. I think it is a game that you can play all night long. It takes some level of paying attention while it gives you the freedom to gaze around the bar and interact with people who aren’t in the game, and it can go down to the very last roll of the dice.
Do you have a particular cocktail that you like?
Marc Rose: I am a rye whiskey guy. I usually drink that neat or with one rock inside of it, but there is a drink on the menu right now which is an homage to a Brooklyn bar, and it’s called the Slope. It’s a variant on a Manhattan. That would be a go-to for me.
You have succeeded in a space where many have tried and failed. What’s the secret?
Marc Rose: My partner and I really care about what we do. We care if people are having a good time, not just that they came to our place. It doesn’t matter if we are packed or mellow. Obviously we want to do good business, but for us it is more important to see people using the space as we intended it. I think if you care, and you build a space that you would want to be at every night, it’s sort of contagious. I built a bar that I would want to go to every night, and it seems like other people get that same feeling.
Med Abrous: We have put things into perspective and see our business as not being a sprint to the finish, but a marathon. We have grown organically. We keep improving our product by examining how we can make things better, whether by refining the games or refining the cocktails. So far people have responded very well to the meticulous nature of both Marc and me and how we run our business. It is in the little things. More and more people appreciate a comfortable place where they can have fun, as opposed to standing in a dark nightclub where you can’t tell how much care or passion went into it.