John Arakaki, 44, co-owner of Saint Felix, sits on a black leather banquet against an exposed brick wall – not far from a black light painting of Billy Dee Williams (circa “Empire Strikes Back”) fondling a can of Colt 45. “I just remember being a longhaired half-Asian playing in a punk band in Cleveland,” Arakaki said. Keeping his emotions in check, he continued, “And hearing a spikey-haired punk rock guy calling me a ‘longhaired, chink faggot.’”
Feeling like an outsider, growing up in conservative Ohio and disagreeing with values espoused during 12 long years of Catholic schooling provided Arakaki with the strength and determination to create the accessible, easygoing watering hole WeHo locals and visitors know as Saint Felix.
A professional musician who’s played with bands Silver Needle and Casper and the Bad Spirits (the latter “the legendary doorman of the Viper Room”), plus transgender singer Jayne County, Arakaki used “rock ‘n’ roll” as an adjective multiple times when describing his successful bar-restaurant hybrid, as well as himself (“being a rock ‘n’ roll person”).
But I wondered about the word “punk.” The way he shared his story, the artists he mentioned admiring (Bowie, Queen, Prince). Why not use “punk rock” as a descriptor?
Arakaki’s answer: “To me [rock ‘n’ roll] is more of an ambiguous umbrella of….” His voice trailed off.
“Inclusivity?” I ask.
“Exactly,” he replied.
Opened eight and a half years ago during Pride 2008, Saint Felix has a loyal, diverse customer base. Any night of the week customers of all stripes (young/old, gay/straight, men/women, musician/non-musician) imbibe consciously crafted cocktails and enjoy a food menu that stands on its own. Try the mac and cheese or the marinated steak skewers and you will be back.
Saint Felix’s roots stem from Arakaki’s friendship with longtime business partner of almost 20 years, Christian Leibfried. “We had backgrounds in music, did nightlife marketing and worked at Monster energy drink,” he said. They work so closely together that “we always joke we’re domestic partners.”
When they had the idea for Saint Felix they told their friends at the Troubadour, the Whisky and the Viper Room. “We wanted a place where cool rock ‘n’ roll people and musicians could come and hang out in WeHo, and also be an ally to the LGBT community.”
“All that matters is you’re cool,” Arakaki said. “Let’s have great drinks and great food.” His food items are a big source of pride. “We literally sell 50% food and 50% drinks.” Not totally a bar, not completely a restaurant. “We’re literally in between.”
His vision for Saint Felix also falls in between. When I ask if it’s a gay bar, Arakaki replied, “Can I have a lifeline?” He shouts over to his colleague Chad, whom he knows from Ohio, mopping behind the bar. (“We really didn’t see it that way,” Chad said.)
“It never mattered to me [the gay bar thing],” Arakaki said. “We just wanted a place where anyone who is cool can come hang out. If you want to put a label on it, you can. I don’t have a label.”
Arakaki’s WeHo staff numbers about 15. “Some have worked here for eight years,” he said, almost the entire time Saint Felix has been open. Add in the 30 people at his Hollywood location, and you’re looking at 45 team members owing their livelihood to a martyr most people have probably never heard of.
How did the bar get its name? “Felix is my father’s name and my middle name,” Arakaki said. “We added the ‘saint.’”
But with his upbringing, why create the Catholic connotation?
Felix means “lucky” in Latin. “So it was more, I think, an aesthetic than definitely a religious [choice],” Arakaki explained.
But, like all nosy journalists I prod: “You grew up Catholic and the religion was so negative for you. Yet the word ‘saint’ is in your business’ name.”
Arakaki smiles but doesn’t take the bait. “I guess my Catholic experience is a little more on the punk rock side,” he said.
8945 Santa Monica Blvd
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