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Employees Only opens on Sunday with a psychic, immigrant cuisine, NYC cocktails and a speakeasy within a speakeasy

Written by
Stephanie Breijo

Starting Sunday night, L.A. can finally walk into its own Employees Only, the sleek cocktail and dinner den often hailed as one of the world’s best bars—but first, Angelenos will have to enter through a psychic’s doors.

One of the first bars to kickstart NYC’s—and then the country’s—modern-speakeasy trend, Employees Only is hidden in plain sight; its only marquee is a neon sign for psychic readings along Santa Monica Boulevard. It’s the same format in every Employees Only around the world, but now West Hollywood is getting its own location, and it comes with an expanded dinner menu, a wood-fired oven, a speakeasy within the speakeasy (yep) and a handful of L.A.-only cocktails.

Of course it takes more than the gimmick of a false storefront to keep a business humming for over a decade (though that storefront is legitimate in its own right; the psychic rents space from the bar and will offer readings for a fee). The brand’s endurance probably has something to do with its founding concept: Treat all guests with the familiarity and camaraderie you’d provide for members of the service industry. This means offering food right up until closing; impressive tableside service and multi-step drinks; and Employee’s Only’s signature cup of complimentary chicken soup for guests who stick around until closing—a gesture that both thanks customers and fills their stomachs after a long night of drinking. 

The focus on this type of hospitality extends beyond service-industry circles; it traces back to turn-of-the-century American restaurant practices, which helped form Employees Only just as much as the period’s melting-pot cuisine. “We always thought of ourselves to be like Once Upon a Time in America,” says co-founder and cocktail trailblazer Dushan Zaric. “When you think about the Prohibition era, rather than Great Gatsby or something that’s grand and flashy, we’re more gritty in that respect.”

Photograph: Courtesy Employees Only/Emilie Baltz

Employees Only is a collective of bartenders and chefs who formed a restaurant and bar out of their collective heritage. It manifests especially in the dinner menu, where you’ll find Old World and turn-of-the-century influence in tableside tartare; dishes like bone-in halibut with stock, bianco vermouth and Italian wildflowers; caviar with blini, pickled eggs, chives and crème fraîche; and a duck, rabbit and pork rillette with local-fruit compotes and brandy.

Zaric, his co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic and Employees Only L.A.’s chef, Sascha Lyon, are all of Eastern European decent; another co-founder, Bill Gilroy, is Italian-American, and grew up in his parents’ restaurant in New York’s Little Italy. Co-founder Jason Kosmas is Greek-American, and the Treme-born Henry LaFargue grew up in the bars and restaurants of a bustling and diverse New Orleans, which just so happens to be the area Lyon’s great-grandmother immigrated through and grew up in after escaping czarist Russia.

L.A.’s Employee’s Only boasts roughly twice the space of its siblings, providing opportunity for Henry’s Room, a speakeasy within the speakeasy. Accessed through a moving wall, this small space will feature its own bar and a menu of New Orleans-inspired cocktails, plus a few dishes—a tribute to LaFargue with food inspired by Louisianna and Lyon’s great-grandmother.

“We’re building our entire program around what Employees Only really is: Deeply rooted in classic immigrant American [cooking],” says Lyon. “It’s what I am, it’s what we are. Once Upon a Time in America has been my favorite movie since I was like, seven years old; I’ve always had images in my head about the charlotte russe, the Jewish deli downstairs, the speakeasy upstairs—that’s always the soundtrack that plays in my head everywhere I go, everything I do.”

Given the additions of a wood-fired oven and California’s produce, the menu in L.A. will also include Neapolitan-inspired pizzas made with naturally-fermented dough, as well as a range of salads, vegetables and roasted fish. On the beverage end, Employees Only L.A. will follow the format of other locations: a menu cordoned into categories of originals (“EO Classics”), aperitifs, long drinks and, of course, the “Fancy Cocktails.”

“It’s not that [’Fancy Cocktails’] are expensive; ’fancy’ is just another approach to creating ingredient,” says Zaric, who’s creating roughly 90 percent of the bar menu. “Are we liquifying something that’s solid? Are we clarifying something that is texturally different? And that’s where we will use the integration of the kitchen much more.”

Look for a marriage between kitchen and bar, with house infusions such as date-sweetened mezcal working its way into desserts like sticky toffee pudding, or a cocktail used as a finishing sauce.

Employees Only is located at 7953 Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood, and is open 5pm to 2am daily. 

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