When we’re out for a drink, you’ll usually find us at one of the best cocktail bars in L.A., but sometimes we’re looking for something other than an inventive new recipe. To get a sense of city history, we like to stop by a few of the oldest bars in L.A., which have been around long enough that they’re practically essential museums of local culture. From Downtown Los Angeles bars to bars in Hollywood and beyond, these places will let you step back in time just a bit.
The oldest bars in L.A.
Pre-dating the Santa Monica Pier itself, this now-kitschy sports bar has been a beachfront institution since 1902. They didn’t even get their first icebox until 1913. It’s not necessarily a spot you’ll seek out for the mixology, but enjoy the sunshine, ocean breeze and sense that you’re hanging out in a spot that has hosted 115 years’ worth of Angelenos before you.
Officially designated as the region’s oldest bar in continual operation, Alhambra Cocktail Lounge first opened in San Pedro in 1904 and has existed in the current form since 1936. These days it’s a true, unrestored dive bar (think old timers slurping bloody marys and Budweisers and décor that won’t be winning any design awards) with a bit of a tough reputation. But if you want a taste of how things used to be, this might be the spot.
Slinging drinks in Downtown L.A. since 1905 in a building rumored to have once been owned by Teddy Roosevelt, this bar is so old that the liquor license it holds is of a type that pretty much doesn’t exist in the city any more, allowing for both normal bar sales and retail sales of full bottles to take away. It was that very license, along with the decades of history, that caught the eye of Cedd Moses, founder of 213 Hospitality, who took over the bar and re-opened it in 2004, taking a chance on bringing some of the first craft cocktails to the still-transitioning neighborhood.
King Eddy Saloon was already a throwback when Charles Bukowski was famously stationed by the bar, which opened its doors for the first time in 1906. It has shuttered and risen again multiple times since then, including a 2014 update by Golden Box’s Jeremy Fall, followed quickly by a sale to yet another new owner in 2015. And yet the Skid Row dive keeps on coming back.
We may never be able to know for sure if there’s truth to the legend that French Dip sandwiches were invented here, but we do know that Cole’s P.E. Buffet (as it was originally known) has been serving them on this spot since 1908, along with the booze to wash them down. The P.E. in the old name stood for Pacific Electric, because the train company once had a terminal in the building Cole’s calls home, but when it shut down in the 1960s, Cole’s future looked dark. In 2007, 213 Hospitality came in and dusted the place off, reopening the original bar and café, and adding the speakeasy-style cocktail den the Varnish in the back.
Originally known as Menotti’s Bar, this drinking den pre-dates Prohibition. When the 18th went into effect, the boozing went underground, literally, into the space now known as the Del Monte Speakeasy. These days you can still head down there to get a vintage feel with cocktails and jazz, but they have helpfully upgraded from the rope-operated elevator they used back in the day.
An institution in Long Beach, this tavern has been serving guests since 1924, but it may not be the drinks that keep patrons coming back over the generations. They’re particularly well known for the apothecary jars of neon yellow pickled eggs that still bob around, reminding us of the bar snacks of yesteryear. They’ve apparently gotten the trick to making them down after 93 years, because they now even market a mix so you can make your own at home when you can’t pay a visit to the wood booth and oil painting decked bar.
Back in 1930, when the original pueblo of Los Angeles was restored into the Olvera Street district we know today, El Paseo Inn was a happening spot. And when the first post-Prohibition liquor licenses were issued in L.A. in 1933, El Paseo secured permit number four. Before becoming El Paseo Inn, the building it now occupies was originally used for wine-making, starting around 1870. A city-designated landmark, El Paseo has served margaritas and classic Mexican dishes to Cesar Chaves, two U.S. Presidents and countless tourists.
We can’t tell you for sure when Frolic Room first started serving the Hollywood set because the rumor says it was sometime during Prohibition, when it was carved out as a speakeasy, accessible only through a secret door. What we do know is that it opened to the general public as a fully legit business in 1934, and it’s been a favorite of celebrities and dive bar enthusiasts ever since.
Celebrating the big 8-0 this year, the Mint continues to host an array of live music in an intimate setting. The club boasts that artists from Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder to LMFAO have played its tiny stage at critical moments in their career, and we’ll have to look the other way on that last one on account of history. Even if you’re not stopping by for a show, the bar and lounge space lets you whet your whistle while you soak up the recording industry lore.