Just off the bustling strip of Santa Monica’s Main Street, home to a slew of restaurants, bars and beach shops, is this subterranean tavern. Enter via a parking lot behind the American Apparel store—just look for the bouncer (or long line) and the chalkboard proclaiming happy hour specials. Once a restaurant, then a jazz club, then a wine cellar (wine barrels and a wine press remain), the space, true to its title, feels like an old tavern adorned with a long, worn wooden bar, unusually wide and cushioned stools, sunken regal love seats, taxidermy on the walls and an elegant mish-mash of chandeliers. Skillful bartenders show preference for beer-infused cocktails and happily snap photos of bar-goers, posting on their Instagrams. Speaking of dismal—the bathrooms are not in great shape—so bring your hand sanitizer, which may also come in handy when it gets crowded and you’re wedged between your drink and some bro.
Good for: Satisfying your urge to draw all over walls: Most of the walls are chalkboard-covered, and bowls of colored chalk grace wine barrels and vintage typewriters to inspire the beached poet within. Happy hour is every night from 5pm to 8pm, featuring $5 wines, well drinks and $3 beers. "Sunny Sundays" gets the sun shining with bottomless champagne cocktails for $20.
The scene: Early on, a more subdued atmosphere of couples and close friends talk intimately on love seats, while groups gather at tables with cocktails, bottled beer and typical gastropub fare. Live music takes over after 10pm, when a line forms out the door and Angelenos of all walks don their beach bum-casual best and can be seen scoping out the scene from basement to rooftop, drink in hand.
The playlist: The eclectic soundtrack is rock and alternative heavy (think: Cake and the White Stripes), until live bands heavy in rock and reggae take to the stage. A separate entrance/exit eventually opens up allowing guests to head to the roof. (Tip: check with the bouncer before exiting; otherwise, you may find a locked door and have to wait in line to get back downstairs.)
The bartender says: The seasonal menu is built for cocktail pairing, and there’s lots of spice—the summer salad with honey lime chile sauce ($14) and Jamaican chicken wings ($14) have a kick, mirroring heat in many of the drinks.
Drink this: They like beer in their cocktails around here—try the First Lady Gin ($12) that boasts citrus, house ginger syrup, agave, a serious kick from some jalapeño and an interesting hoppy bouquet from Lagunitas IPA. If you’re a Belgian brew fan, try the Summer Solstice ($12) gin, blood orange, lime, grapes, Hoegaarden, agave. There are 20+ traditional and craft beers by the bottle ($4-10), wines by the glass ($8-12) and by the bottle averaging $70. —Jonathan Cristaldi
Getting to Santa Monica's Basement Bar is an adventure in itself. When arriving at the popular Victorian on a weekend night, navigate through throngs of recent UCLA grads hanging out on the porch to get to the popular underground bar. Enter through a "secret" passage in the parking lot and head downstairs the Basement Bar. Enter through the Victorian's underground 2,000 square-foot wine cellar that's been transformed into a speakeasy-style bar where bourbon is the drink of choice. Surrounded by plush green couches, a vintage chandelier hangs low—adding a bit more sparkle to the dimly-lit bar. Blackboards chalked with the drink menu and the deer taxidermy on the wall give this underground spot a relaxed vibe. Happy hour is nightly from 5-8pm and all night on Sunday. Stick around for the live music playing almost every night. And if you're hungry, neighboring restaurant La Vecchia Cucina offers some late-night Italian bites at this somewhat hidden Main St speakeasy. —Cortney Riles