THE LAST TIME Wes Daniel and I talked on the record, daylight was streaming through Hang Fire, the little bar that grew to mean so much to so many people in Savannah. It was set to close the following week.
The night of their big farewell bash, Hang Fire was granted an extension on their lease through New Year’s Eve; there were a few tears on the dance floor as the clock struck midnight and we were launched into 2016.
Since announcing Hang Fire’s end, Daniel has fielded hundreds on hundreds of questions: Would Hang Fire reopen in a new location? Was he on to a new business venture? With his signature friendly ease and humor, the Savannahian hinted toward something new and exciting while keeping it vague. Now, he’s ready for the big reveal: El-Rocko Lounge is about to become your new favorite hangout.
Daniel and I are perched on the stoop of 117 Whitaker Street, just a block south from Hang Fire’s old location.
The spot’s been jinxed for a while now—Larry’s Subs had a good run, followed by Flip Flop Tiki Bar, followed by Savannah Beach Bar & Grill. The foot traffic at the intersection of Whitaker and State is overwhelming; it just needs a little something different to stand out to those hustling by. The painstaking attention to detail and an effortlessly cool vibe emanating from doors of El-Rocko is sure to ensnare them.
The name of Daniel’s new venture may ring a bell to longtime Savannahians.
He grins mischievously as he recalls his time frequenting the “rustic,” as he puts it, El Rocko Lounge, an infamous nightclub on MLK.
“Me and my friend worked at the candy store in high school,” he recalls. “We’d leave school and drive straight to work. We worked every day—we didn’t do homework. We’d take a shortcut on MLK—we were like, 17—and kept passing by this place called El Rocko Lounge. I’d tell him, ‘Man, I bet they’ll serve us.’”
One day, scrawny, diminutive Daniel and friend stepped through El Rocko’s doors, greeted by a “huge bartender” who allowed them to sit, quickly enjoy two beers, and then scram.
“We started drinking there,” Daniel says. “Then they had to close because someone got murdered.”
Sordid history aside, the catchy-cool whimsy of the name is undeniable, and it stuck in Daniel’s head. It’s the perfect moniker for a place that possesses a certain kind of elegance and sophistication and a playful troublemaker side.
The announcement of Daniel’s new venture and ensuing renovations may seem to have happened quite quickly, but he’s been planning from the time he knew Hang Fire’s lease would not be renewed.
He called up his best friend from high school, Kieffer Parker of Savannah menswear authority J Parker LTD; the two had talked about going into business together in the past.
“I want to have the Hang Fire crowd and cater to them, but also I want this to be a place where people can come and have drinks after work and create that kind of environment that’s not completely a dive bar, or where people don’t walk in and say, ‘I’m the oldest person here,” Daniel explains.
“I knew I wanted to do something different from Hang Fire. Something more swanky.”
That’s when Ikeda Feingold, Daniel’s partner in life and love, swept in. A world-traveling model since she was a young teen, Feingold’s eye for interiors and naturally glamorous style became El-Rocko’s driving force.
“The look she was going for is if Wes Anderson directed the shoot-out bar scene in Scarface,” Daniel says with a huge grin.
“At first it was going to be low-key, then it kept going and going until this came into fruition,” he says, gesturing to the gleaming, golden, distinctly ‘70s interior.
Shimmering vintage wallpaper wraps the walls. Sparkly golden cushions wait for friends and neighbors to take a seat, and an equally sparkly golden bar waits for elbows to rest upon. The whole thing is like a 1970s jewel box and, despite its prominent location, has that hidden gem feel that out-of-towners are sure to devour.
Daniel credits a strong team to bringing his and Feingold’s vision to life. Anders Thomsen, carpenter and guitarist, did the beautiful woodwork (fun shapes and gorgeous inlays abound). Igor Fiksman and Wes Davis created the one-of-a-kind speaker cabinets.
Daniel looks forward to having music flow through those speakers. His old buds in the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra will kick things off at El-Rocko’s grand opening on Saturday, and Thomsen will perform every Wednesday.
The first El-Rocko purchase was a jukebox (not an Internet jukebox, thank you). Next, Daniel stumbled upon crates and crates of 45s in a shop and spent three hours picking out his favorites. From Marvin Gaye deep cuts to Madonna, Prince, Blue Cheer, The Kinks, and Daniel’s beloved Van Halen, it’ll be free to play.
There’s a film photo booth, and Daniel has collected numerous pachinko machines for patrons to play, too.
“My dad was in the Marines,” he says. “He brought us home a pachinko machine from Japan. I always wondered why bars didn’t have them—they’re so graphic and don’t take up any space.”
Want a souvenir? Score an El-Rocko branded condom from a vintage dispenser in the restroom and an official pen, too. Daniel is all about the branding, the little touches, and, really, all about the fun.
At the heart of it all is a good, solid cocktail, and Daniel has learned from the best.
Through a family connection of Feingold’s, they met acclaimed Portland bartender/cocktail guru Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who introduced the couple to barrel-aged cocktails.
“We started batching our own cocktails, making ten gallons of them and putting them in whiskey barrels and aging them,” says Daniel. “When you age them, six weeks later, it mellows out the alcohol and gets this completely different taste. We’ll transfer those from the barrels to small kegs.”
Though El-Rocko may possess a certain gleam and refinement that laidback Hang Fire may not have boasted, rest assured: the price points are essentially the same, with the barrel-aged cocktails being the exception (Daniel assures that, at $9, you’re getting three shots a glass, so it’s truly a deal).
And if your heart still pangs for Hang Fire, not to worry: Daniel’s bottled Scorpion Tea, just for you. Rock on.
4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra
When: Saturday, April 30, 9 p.m.
Where: El-Rocko Lounge (117 Whitaker St.)