Pick a card, any card, and it’s likely to show up again and again throughout the course of the evening. Perhaps it will surface unexpectedly at the other end of the bar, or maybe folded tightly inside the center of an uncut lime. It’s not the cocktails making you see this—though they’re absolutely still worth ordering. It’s the handiwork of a handful of magicians who perform every Monday night at Magic Bar.
More specifically, this rotating roster of magicians performs in Sushi Bar, Phillip Frankland Lee’s sushi speakeasy, which occupies a hidden nook of Woodley Proper. A 12-seat room masked by a rolling wooden door, the Top Chef star’s sushi concept sits hiding in plain sight, vacant for half of the week with a beverage director who can’t seem to sit still. A veteran of both bartending and Broadway, Benjamin Schrader keeps busy as equal parts MC and barman within Lee’s Encino restaurant empire; outside of it he still performs onstage, occasionally at the world-famous and infamously hard-to-get-into private club, the Magic Castle.
And for his next trick, Schrader’s own saloon for magic: Each Monday night, at 7 and 9pm, skilled magicians who frequent the Castle take over Sushi Bar’s intimate, low-lit space to create their cocktails-and-magic pop-up series, Magic Bar. Old-timey jazz drifts from a record player, candles drip wax over shelves in the corners, and for an hour, it’s unclear whether the more exciting escapism is the Houdini-inspired evasion tricks or your hourlong disconnect from the outside world.
“It’s not people who know a couple card tricks just strolling in,” says Schrader. “I like to think of it as an unofficial extension of [the Castle], but without the dress code. It’s a place where you can come and relax and be one-on-one with magicians and see some of the best close-up magic you could possibly see.”
On Mondays, the tools behind the sushi counter swap for a container of floss, backup decks of Bicycle cards, a short piece of rope. Some weeks feature one guest magician, others, two. As the performers take the stage—again, it’s less a stage and more just the area where Phillip Frankland Lee forms sushi from Wednesday to Sunday—Schrader whips up two classic-leaning cocktails, which often change from week to week at around $15 apiece. The last menu included a drink dubbed the Professor, made of gin, caramel, a touch of lemon and an apple syrup reduction. This week’s Bullet Catch doled ginger foam over a mix of top-shelf bourbon and a smoked honey made next door at sibling restaurant, Scratch Bar.
“They’re kind of throwback drinks, not overloaded,” he says. “Well-balanced, in-a-coupe classics.” In August or September, during Magic Bar’s quiet beginnings, Schrader concocted a drink using a miracle berry, which changes taste receptors in your mouth—a kind of beverage-based magic.
While you can’t order food within Magic Bar you can eat there, if you’re looking for dinner and a show; Scratch Bar is closed on Mondays, but both Woodley Proper and Lee’s adjacent seafood operation, Frankland’s Crab & Co., are both open, and you can get food delivered to Magic Bar if you’ve placed your order in the restaurants before the show begins.
The seatings tend to sell out—especially the 9pm—but fortunately for those who like to plan ahead, Magic Bar doesn’t follow Sushi Bar’s no-reservations system. Reservations for the show can be made online, whether booking for an individual—at $25 a head—or a large party. Magic Bar’s become so popular, Schrader says, that he and Lee are working on a similar concept for the chef’s string of restaurants opening in Montecito.
“What’s really kind of joyful for me to see is that magic at one time was this stuffy, dusty thing, but there’s something about the way we’re doing it here—when combined with the drinks and combined with the ambiance—it’s very Disneyland for grownups,” says Schrader. “You can have that experience at the Magic Castle, but it’s hard to get into the Magic Castle. And when you go, it doesn’t feel as personal as you want it to feel. Here, it’s different.”
While there are a number of magic venues in L.A., the formats skew larger: 50-to-100-person rooms, seating that’s rows back from the performer, dramatic lighting, set pieces. At Magic Bar, the experience is as stripped-down as it could be, raising the stakes for performers shuffling cards just inches from your face. But the intimacy works both ways; Magic Bar’s informality creates a space that lends itself to experimentation and improvisation, and, more simply, fun.
“Sometimes during a show we’ll stop and say, ‘hey, this is new, let’s try something,’” says Kayla Drescher, a frequent performer on Magic Bar’s roster. “Because it’s intimate and because we get to know everybody on a more personal level, we can tailor it to the audience.”
Sometimes, magicians come to sit in the audience and take in the show. If they’re identified, they’re often called up to do a trick or some “sessioning,” providing guests a chance to see magicians casually riffing and showing each other what they’ve been working on. Looking to get involved in the magic arts yourself? At the end of each show, you can pick up a deck of cards for $3 and when you do, the team will teach you one trick.
“There’s new people every week, new drinks every week; it’s a repeat-offender kind of affair.” Schrader adds with a smile, “You could end up being a magic nerd if you start coming out.”
Magic Bar pops up at 7 and 9pm every Monday night in Phillip Frankland Lee’s sushi speakeasy, Sushi Bar, which is located at 16101 Ventura Boulevard in Woodley Proper.