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Lock & Key, located between a gas station and an unassuming food window on neon-charged Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, is a Black-owned business — something many patrons of the popular nightlife hangout don’t know. This is not a result of the usual oversight or erasure of leaders of color, but instead by design.
“I’ve always been the owner who doesn’t necessarily want to be known,” Cyrus Batchan, owner of Lock & Key, tells THR while seated in one of his establishment’s lounge-style leather booths. “One of my favorite books growing up was The Great Gatsby. It’s like, you’re the person behind the scenes that people know, or don’t know. You’re kind of in the party, but you’re in the corner, and you’re just there. But you’re throwing a great party. I love that idea.” He also recently opened the French- and Indian-influenced brasserie Camphor in the Arts District (it took over the space that one of Batchan’s previous efforts, Nightshade, called home before closing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Batchan is a Southern California native through and through. Born in Riverside to a Black father and Persian mother who ran a small restaurant business, he grew up in Moreno Valley, went to law school in San Diego, and has lived in Los Angeles proper ever since.
The myriad subcultures and scenes intrinsic to this experience are on full display at Lock & Key, which first opened in 2013. Following a string of unfortunate events over the last two years that threatened its success (pandemic closure, several neighborhood fires, a burglary that completely gutted the bar of its sound system, alcohol, light fixtures, and point-of-sale terminals), the hotspot has risen like a phoenix from the ashes, born anew for a consistently loyal crowd.
When Batchan was developing the idea for Lock & Key in relative obscurity, paying attention to Los Angeles’ cultural rhythms — at the dawn of nightlife’s speakeasy renaissance — was paramount to selecting the right location. “I felt like when people went out in Koreatown, they had to leave here to go downtown, or to Hollywood. I was like, ‘Why can’t we have a cool cocktail bar in Koreatown?’ My vision was a cocktail bar, but with the idea of a New York neighborhood bar,” Batchan says.
At the time, the entrepreneur felt many of L.A.’s cocktail-driven destinations were too pretentious, leaning on aesthetics more than an authentic feeling.
“I wanted to just be a good neighborhood bar where you go after work. If you live nearby you come with your friends, you celebrate your birthday, you hear good music — could be a jazz band, could be a DJ — and just have great hospitality with quality food and beverage. A neighborhood mixology bar. In New York, those are the institutions — everybody has their bar.”
The concept was solid, but funding — especially as an entrepreneur of color — less so. People doubted that a new bar — situated among various small businesses, at a busy intersection in Koreatown with slim parking opportunities (especially before the ride-sharing business boom) — would flourish. Finding the necessary funds, Batchan says, was “literally bootstraps.”
“The day that I opened this place I think I had taken the last $3,000 out of my bank account and made change so the bartenders had money. It was do or die,” he remembers.
Fast-forward to 2022, and there’s a line of Los Angeles’ tastemakers and creatives snaking down the block, waiting to cross the threshold into Lock & Key’s hidden entryway, down the rabbit hole into the speakeasy-style bar and the enclosed outdoor patio just beyond it.
“We have an ID scanner system [which gives us] data metrics. It shows a lot of built-in regulars, locals and some tourists,” Batchan says. “I feel like every event we do has its own DNA and demographic, but we have a very L.A. crowd on any given night.”
Starting in July and August, the bar generally sees a rise in international and East Coast visitors coming in — perfect timing to experience Lock & Key’s series of summer activations. On Saturdays, Batchan invites various hosts and well-known DJs to use the space for their parties, and on Sundays, Lock & Key’s in-house day party “Ice Cream Sundays” (which has called everyone from Billy Walsh to Jerry Lorenzo and Sean G hosts) commands a consistently large and diverse crowd.
“We wanted it to have that backyard boogie feel, like you’re at somebody’s house in L.A.,” Batchan says of the hit party. Over the years, the bar has welcomed Zayn, Eddie Murphy, Miguel and many others through its doors — as guests, and sometimes even as surprise performers. “It’s always been an organic thing that just occurred.”
Programming has always been a key ingredient to Lock & Key’s success. Which is why when the bar was dark during mandatory pandemic closures, Batchan noticed the trend of DJs streaming from their homes, and installed a streaming setup in the bar to not only connect with new audiences but provide alternative opportunities to creatives working to keep spirits lifted.
And speaking of spirits, Batchan and his team are always updating the cocktail menu: “People are drinking tequila. So, we tweaked the menu to add a couple more tequila cocktails, because I want you to try [one],” he says. “And then next to that I’m going to put a Mezcal cocktail [on the menu], because I think if you like tequila, the natural progression is mezcal. It’s that little bit of programming to give people what they want, but also get them to keep the standards of what I want.”
Batchan, who studied law before pivoting to the hospitality industry, says being an entrepreneur was always his goal. “Law, for me, was more like a business skill versus something I wanted to do for a living,” he says. He intrinsically understands how to run (and protect) a business. And his approach to hospitality is creative, yes, but not without strategy — or without care.
When the kitchen was closed because of the pandemic, Batchan spent personal funds supporting LAPD’s Olympic Division with hundreds of meals. “It wasn’t a popular thing [to do], especially for a Black man to be supporting the police, but these are the people that took care of my neighborhood,” he says. “I’m adding value to the neighborhood, but I should also support my community. My parents had a family restaurant with the local softball team’s picture on the wall. I grew up with that mentality of doing something good for your neighborhood.”
And though Batchan’s philanthropy existed in some version behind the scenes for years, the wake-up call to make his work as a Black entrepreneur more visible came after George Floyd’s murder by police triggered the world to attention.
“What I realized is, there could be a kid out there who wants to be a restaurant or bar owner, right? He should have a mentor that he can go to. There are professional organizations for everything. I’ve been blessed to build a bar that is 8 years old in L.A. and is successful,” Batchan says. “After George Floyd’s [death], I thought: ‘What can I do in business, to participate in that change?’ And I think part of that change is perception, standing up and saying: ‘Yes, this is a Black-owned business. I am the person who’s behind it. And I’ve gone through all the trials and tribulations based on the color of my skin, but also as a small-business owner. But I’ve still withstood that and built something successful in L.A.”
Looking ahead, Batchan plans to continue rolling out new menus, including fresh pizza concepts, with the possibility of adding desserts. And in the fall, he’s hoping to start new programming initiatives, like an educational dinner series with tequila. Currently, Lock & Key is open Thursday through Sunday every week, but Batchan says adding Wednesday hours to the schedule is on the horizon.
Elsewhere, Camphor just launched a new bar menu, and Batchan is actively looking at different opportunities to open yet another venue, perhaps in Koreatown or East Hollywood, he says. But Lock & Key — the green light at the end of the dock, if you will — remains his foundation.
“Treat people how you want to be treated, be welcoming, and be comfortable being yourself,” Batchan says of his approach to building beloved Los Angeles institutions. “People have always told me, in business specifically, you can’t be everything to everyone. I think it boils down to quality, consistency and hospitality — how you treat people.”
A version of this story first appeared in the June 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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