L.A.'s best cocktail bars
This groundbreaking cocktailery from Jared Meisler and Sean MacPherson—who brought you West Hollywood staples Bar Lubitsch and Jones—is small, but the drinks pack a punch. Once you've located it (just head to the Largo, then spot the neon sign for an old psychic parlor), find more than 20 classic tipples with a twist—like the vanilla-charged Spiced Mule—all served in chilled glasses and the occasional plastic monkey. Vigilant barkeeps in snazzy black vests are always on hand to shake up a recommended libation or launch an impromptu lesson on Japanese whiskey. Their slogan is "Nothing but the best." Here, it most certainly rings true.
Alex Day, Dave Kaplan and Devon Tarby opened the Walker Inn in May 2015, joining its sister bar, the Normandie Club, within the Normandie Hotel. Inside a room just large enough to seat 27, the menu tackles a new theme every few months. First, fog rose from a Big Sur-inspired drink made with pine-infused brandy, a standout on the PCH-centric menu; an Alice Waters-inspired menu put the bar's creativity on display, with drinks like the Gazpacho, a bowl of chilled vegetable juices spiked with gin and vermouth. From day one, the bar has been a destination for both cocktail connoisseurs and timid drinkers alike—letting you decide if you really like vegetable juice with gin.
Perhaps Raymond Chandler put it best: “The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that's wonderful.” Such an establishment can be hard to come by in Los Angeles, but it does exist, believe it or not, on the ground floor of the Best Western Hollywood Hills Hotel. Every square inch is thoughtfully designed, with accordion-style wood paneling, grasscloth wall treatments, retro light fixtures and white leather chairs. The cocktail menu is simple yet stellar—an eight-drink compendium of classic revivals with subtly genius twists. If you’re after something serious, stiff and straight up, the Bernard is an improved gin martini with more than one twist; in addition to salt-cured olives, it comes with a pickled mushroom.
1886 isn't just the best cocktail bar in Pasadena—it's one of the best in all of L.A. Aidan Demarest (Neat) and Marcos Tell (the Varnish) make a great team—they had previously opened First & Hope together—so it was no surprise when they helped launch this cocktail cove behind the Raymond, serving some of the best fancy drinks around. The menu changes each season and thrives on originality, from the summery Pimm's #13 made with mezcal and Mexican Tamarindo soda to the wintry Paradise Lost with agricole rhum, a house-made chai tincture, aged maple and lime peel.
Exposed brick, sexy lighting and plenty of studded leather sofas—yup, we've got ourselves yet another industrial-chic watering hole. The vibe is relaxed thanks to a friendly neighborhood crowd, the barkeeps in deep-v T-shirts are accomodating and even the bouncer is polite. We'll even give them brownie points for a classic menu of swills that aren't flashy. A favorite is the Diamondback Lounge, made with rye, applejack and yellow chartreuse. It's boozy as hell, but balanced to a T. Tip: Grab a spot near the large window facing 14th Street for some fresh air and solid people watching.
The mystique of prohibition lives on at Melrose Umbrella Co., a pedigreed saloon from the inspired minds of nightlife bigwigs Austin Melrose, Ian Shepp and Zach Patterson. Step inside and, quite suddenly, it's 1933. Immaculately attired staff shake up some of the best drinks in town from a brief list. What the menu—five house specials and four classics, plus a small additional selection of old-fashioneds—lacks in quantity, it makes up for in craftsmanship. These are strong, sophisticated, shrewdly balanced and, most importantly, accessibly priced swills ($12-$14). There's no better place to raise a glass to the end of prohibition.
For most, the phrase “old man bar” conjures a specific image of worn upholstery, bowls of peanuts on a laminate bar top and crotchety curmudgeons. This is not the Old Man Bar you’ll find in Culver City. Tucked away in the rear of Hatchet Hall, the intimate space is dark, even slightly spooky, with taxidermy, antlers, animal skulls and black-and-white portraits. You'll find old-fashioneds here—eight variations, to be exact. The Exceptional replaces bourbon with Exceptional Grain scotch for a smoky, peaty finish, while the American Trilogy brings George Dickel rye and Laird's apple brandy to the bourbon party, creating a smooth and utterly patriotic concoction.
The Spare Room opened in 2011, a swanky hotel bar from Med Abrous and Marc Rose with two lanes of bowling and an original cocktail program designed by Aidan Demarest. It's always been a place to congregate, but the arrival of beverage director Yael Vengroff transformed it into something else entirely: a place where handcrafted cocktails could push the envelope. Take Vengroff's martini, for example: the Salt & Vinegar Martini, made with potato vodka, dry vermouth, pickle brine, celery shrub and a side of potato chips. It took Vengroff two years to perfect the drink; it takes two sips to realize how utterly unique the cocktail truly is.
Culver City’s the Corner Door feels like a neighborhood place where everybody knows—or should know—your name. It's a cozy culinary and libation retreat where exposed red brick meets dark-wood paneling under Edison-approved lighting, and the drinks and bites are reliable and flavorful. Beau du Bois heads up the beverage program, which sees featured craft cocktail specials as well as a set list of classics, beers on tap and a decent selection of wines. Happy Hour is in full swing every day from 5 to 7pm, when cocktails are under $10 and glasses of wine are $6—it's hard to argue with that.
The concrete exterior of this Arts District haunt seems intentionally nondescript. A bold neon sign above the door reads simply “BAR”—the small plaque beside it, “everson royce bar, est. 2015,” verifies the spot’s identity. Inside, E.R.B. is bustling and bright, and a spacious patio out back offers ample seating for drinking, dining and stargazing. Look for the bar's rotating menu of barrel-aged cocktails made right there, in-house. To eat, enjoy some of the city's choicest bar food, like the steamed buns ($10), made with melt-in-your-mouth roasted pork belly wrapped in pillowy warm bao—as well as one of the city's finest and simplest burgers ($10).
A mid-century bar is nothing novel, but one that’s inspired by the golden age of air travel? Now that's impressive. At this aeronautical-themed West Hollywood boîte, retro-fab chandeliers cast a glow onto stiff cocktails around a stainless steel wing-topped bar. Of course, the real reason to land is for the high-flying drink program. Ask for the Ginsberg ($14)—not exactly a swill Don Draper would order. It’s a refreshing, inventive combo of rye, scotch, Fernet Branca, Aperol and bitters that’s sure to make you feel groovy, in case the DJ’s remixed Motown set just isn’t doing it for you. Oh, and don’t forget your bag of peanuts before exiting through the “Departures” door.
Cocktail aficionado Sasha Petraske is a big deal in New York (he opened one of the city’s first serious cocktail bars, Milk & Honey), so when he teamed up with Downtown nightlife operator Cedd Moses (Golden Gopher, Broadway Bar, Seven Grand) and barman Eric Alperin in 2009, he launched one of Los Angeles' first sophisticated bars, now considered the godfather of L.A.'s craft cocktail movement. The speakeasy sits inside Cole's, marked only by a drawing of a coupe glass. Standing at the bar is not permitted, so snag a vintage booth and take in the live piano music.
Imagine your grandmother’s house: Warm and inviting, with no shortage of antique knick-knacks. Now add a ton of booze. Welcome to Big Bar, which, despite its name, is actually quite small—about 15 people inside feels snug, though more like a friendly hug than a claustrophobic nightmare. Yet somehow this utterly vintage nook hosts packed events with utter ease, from bartender takeovers to movie-themed drinks coinciding with a screening on the patio. Add to that an uncomplicated yet whimsical drink program from master mixologist Cari Hah (Clifton’s, Three Clubs, City Tavern DTLA), and you’ve reached neighborhood-bar heaven.
In the ever-changing Highland Park, curious imbibers can find the drinkery from Spirit Animal Group’s Nicholas Krok, Ryan Duffy and Jeremy Simpson inside a converted garage behind Cafe Birdie. Stop right there if you think this is a speakeasy; instead, the twinkle-lit courtyard and homey interior combo conveys a downright neighborly feel. And the best part: no crowds, despite its expert cocktails. Try the Hot in Here ($14), a spicy blend of Copper and Kings Brandy, house-made habanero syrup, and angostura bitters for a drink that really heats things up.
The newest gem on this list, Bibo Ergo Sum—"I drink, therefore I am"—is the latest beverage venture from the Proprietors team (they of Normandie Club, Honeycut and Walker Inn fame), and owner Tait Forman of Arclight Cinemas. The menu here is The Prestige-inspired, separating drinks into three categories as laid out in Christopher Nolan's film about dueling magicians. In "the pledge," drinks embrace the ordinary, and are simpler, more straightforward or recognizable classics. In "the turn," cocktails rely on scientific process and showmanship to wow the audience. For their final trick, in the prestige section, drinks rely on the techniques touched upon previously, to build classic-leaning drinks that marry convention and innovation. Ta da!
The 1933 Group (Thirsty Crow, Big Foot Lodge, La Cuevita, Harlowe) has a knack for design and they’ve upped the ante here, transporting a townhouse from Savannah and planting it in the middle of Hollywood. Make yourself at home—the living room, dining room or front patio—because each space is bedecked with mismatched vintage furniture. As its name suggests, the bar features sassafras root in its cocktails using house-made sassafras bitters and sarsaparilla soda, in addition to ingredients like malted milk powder, grilled peaches and pink peppercorns. The second half—and priciest section—of the menu centers around barrel-aged cocktails, an old-time tradition of aging premixed drinks, but, for Los Angeles, a new take on Southern comfort.
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