Rafael Covarrubias tends bar 40 hours a week; he wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Monday night, and Rafael Covarrubias is three hours into his shift. His white hair is neatly combed back, and he sports a trim mustache above his mischievous smile. His white tux jacket is pressed, and he whips efficiently up and down the bar he tends at the Pacific Dining Car. He keeps the water goblets filled before they get half empty. He sets out silverware before the salads come up.
The Pacific Dining Car, which sits on 6th Street in downtown, is living Los Angeles folklore. It was built in 1921, as the city was booming. The original owners, Fred Cook, a failed opera singer from New York, and his wife, Lovey, envisioned an experience that mimicked dining on a train. So, they had a fully-functioning railway car made, which they parked at 7th Street and Westlake Avenue, and had to, according to restaurant lore, move in the dead of night to avoid busy traffic.
There, the dining car sat for two years and quickly became a local favorite known for its homemade steak sauce and flaky pies. After the land the car sat on was sold, however, the Cooks packed up and rolled down to their new home at the intersection of 6th and Witmer Streets, where it has stayed since 1923. The car still serves as the restaurant’s front dining room. The lighting inside is dim, and jazz music is always piping — the kind that makes you suddenly want a watery whiskey on the rocks.
Additional rooms jut out from the main cabin — there’s a visible wine cellar, framed portraits of dogs in Victorian garb and green velvet accents everywhere. Every room has a haunting, cinematic quality to it. “Chinatown,” “Training Day” and “Street Kings” were all filmed here. It’s a quiet restaurant with lots of dark corners, making it a good place to be both seen and unseen. Bugsy Siegel and Bob Hope used to be regulars here, as was George Harrison. Danny Devito, Adam Sandler and Bernie Sanders have also been rumored to stop by.
Tonight, Covarrubias’ bar is full of diners, and he tends to them as he has done for the last 36 years — and prior to that, another 36 years at the Sheraton in Glendale. It’s nearing the end of the month, which means diners are coming in solo to cash in on their birthday meal. Members of the Pacific Dining Car’s 1921 Club get a free entree on their birthday.
“My birthday is coming up next month,” Covarrubias says. He’ll be turning 88. “Actually, I hate birthdays. They always give me a bunch of clothes. I don’t know where to put those clothes.”
“They,” presumably are the four women he lives with: his wife, his step-daughter, his granddaughter and his great-granddaughter.
“Four women in the house plus a female dog?” He quips, deadpan. “I have to get out of there.”
The only reason he’s been able to keep working, he says, is because his stepdaughter lives with him and his wife. Covarrubias’ wife has dementia and needs constant supervision. Sometimes, when he gets home from work at 3 a.m., she is already awake, so he stays up watching cartoons with her until his stepdaughter can step in.
“This is my therapy,” he says of his work. “Otherwise, I would go nuts.”
He has been working nights for the past 50 years, but he’s been working longer than that. He grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and there, at the age of 13, he quit school when he and his twin brother had to start helping support their parents and 11 younger siblings.
“My father, excuse my English,” Covarrubias says, “he was a horny person.”
In 1955, Covarrubias immigrated to the United States using his twin brother’s green card. He was stopped and sent back to Guadalajara three times by the same immigration agent. On his third time back in Mexico, his brother called to tell him he had a lawyer working on getting a visa for him.
“It was nothing at the time,” he says. “Now, you try to cross the border they say, ‘Give us a call 20 years from now.’ Especially with Trump. They kick you out before you can come in.”
As his Visa paperwork was being processed, Covarrubias married his then-girlfriend — the same woman he now comes home to care for — and returned to the states to find work. Once more, he was stopped by the same immigration agent. This time, Covarrubias pulled his papers from his pocket. The agent let him be.
“I became a bartender by accident,” Covarrubias says. “I started out washing dishes. Now I wash glasses. It’s not as greasy.”
He drops a check, pours a Hennessy neat and makes sure a couple at a booth isn’t driving before serving them another round.
“I love what I do,” he says.
A solo diner at the bar stands and slips on their jacket after paying their check. “See you soon,” Covarrubias tells them. “If I’m not here, check Forest Lawn.”
“I enjoy my work,” he says, “because you can tell, I’m a clown. It’s something you’re born with. People like you to clown around with them.”
Los Angeles hosted the first-ever Super Bowl back in 1967, and Covarrubias bartended for a private party there. He got a free ticket as part of the gig.
“I was actually very bored,” he says. “I never saw a football game in my life. I’m not into sports, to begin with.”
Four years later, he worked the Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl and got another free ticket. Instead of entering the stadium, he spent the whole game eating sandwiches and drinking sodas with one of the bus drivers.
Though he loves tending a bar, Covarrubias isn’t a drinker. Growing up, he drank the beer in Mexico but says he didn’t like the way beer in the U.S. tasted.
“I taste cocktails to see if they are sweet enough. Some cocktails taste really good, but they don’t appeal to me,” he says with a shrug.
The job at Pacific Dining Car was a godsend for Covarrubias when he got it in 1986, after having racked up $10,000 in credit card debt.
He wasn’t making enough money working full-time at the Sheraton to uphold a standard of living for his family. He points to the table where the interview took place 36 years ago.
“The manager asked me why I wanted the job,” Covarrubias says. “I said, ‘Because I’m starving.’ He said, ‘That’s a good enough reason.’”
Covarrubias started working within days of that interview and spent the next five years working 90 hours a week between the hotel and his night shift at the dining car.
“When I started working here, there was nothing downtown. Then, came the convention center, Staples Center, Disney. There are at least 20 restaurants over there,” he says, referring to the bustling block of neon lights and parking structures a few blocks and a freeway overpass away. “Nobody has the quality that we have. Their prices are half ours, so we have to compete with that. We’re still surviving because we have regulars. We have people who have been coming for two, three generations, but we need more than that.”
He checks the window for servers who need drinks. “You’re the best in town,” a waiter tells Covarrubias as he grabs a tray of martinis.
“This place, two more years [and] it will be 100 years old. I will 90,” Covarrubias says. “I hope that the place is still doing okay then and that I can be here. I’m not pessimistic, but I’m realistic.”
He refills more waters. He scans the dimly lit room.
“Being a bartender is nothing,” he says, “but to me, it’s everything.”