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Melancholy Baby 

The Black Dahlia as cocktail

Thursday, Aug 26 2004
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The big signboard displayed outside the Biltmore’s dimly lit Gallery Bar suggests a tricky balancing act of historical gravitas and self-promotion. The words “Black Dahlia Martini” float above images of a classic V-glass and the ghostly face of Elizabeth Short, her picture taken from the ill-fated starlet’s mug shot. The “Black Dahlia” name is printed in ransom-note font — a coy allusion to both the cop-taunting letters the Dahlia’s killer allegedly sent to the Herald Examiner and to the eviscerated condition in which he left the 22-year-old’s body on a vacant lot on Norton Avenue and 39th Street. Someone had a lot of fun putting this ad campaign together.

For the past year, companion “table tents” placed throughout the Biltmore’s wood-paneled lounge have promised “A Mysterious Dark Martini With a Legendary Past” and list the cocktail’s ingredients: 31/2 ounces of Absolut Citron vodka, along with one-half shots of Chambord raspberry liqueur and Kahlua, topped with a coil of orange rind. On any given night you’ll find at least one or two drinkers in the Biltmore bar confronting the dark behemoth. Like Hollywood, it’s a sweet but enervating drink; if you’re partial to a simple whiskey on the rocks or to traditional martinis, the Black Dahlia is likely to send you into diabetic shock, and you’ll find yourself drinking the last third of it out of habit — or to justify its $14 price tag.

There are several Black Dahlia martini variants appearing at bars around town, each promoted by a different vodka company. The Biltmore’s carries considerably more cachet because, as the table tents remind us, “It was on January 15, 1947, that . . . the Black Dahlia was last seen in the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel.” That’s pretty strong product placement — with that fact tucked in its pocket, the Biltmore probably could’ve gotten away with sticking a steak knife into a Bloody Mary and calling it a Black Dahlia. But the Grand Avenue hotel is one of the few places that can pull off such a collision of carnage and commerce — its Gallery Bar ranks among L.A.’s most atmospheric booze grottos and merely sipping a Coke in its gloomy recesses puts you in the mood to read The Big Sleep — or to watch The Shining.

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After my Dahlia encounter at the Biltmore, I couldn’t help but wonder what Boardner’s, the crusty old Hollywood bar on Cherokee Avenue, was doing about the hotel’s claim on L.A.’s most infamous murder victim. Boardner’s, after all, was a hangout of Short when she lived in a women’s rooming house a few blocks up the street. So I called co-owner Tricia La Belle and learned that the place, which caters to longtime regulars while cultivating a new generation of goths and scenesters, actually has two Black Dahlia martinis.

“We have an ‘old-timers’ Black Dahlia for the day crowd,” La Belle told me, “and a ‘nighttime’ Black Dahlia.”

The first version, a decades-old favorite that goes for $10 a pop, is a shot of Blavod vodka (the black-hued liquor that goes into many another Black Dahlia), triple sec and Chambord — and garnished with cherries on a skewer that, in its own Grand Guignol way, makes more sense than an orange peel.

“People have been coming in and asking for it for as long as anyone here can remember,” La Belle said, suggesting how much Boardner’s and its regulars have come to adopt Elizabeth Short’s memory over the years.

Boardner’s night clientele is generally much younger than the day shift of drinkers, and for them bartender Kelly McCann concocted a $12 Dahlia with Stoli vanilla vodka, Chambord and Kahlua. It’s been around for about half a dozen years, roughly the time when Elizabeth Short’s brief life began appearing on hipsters’ radars.

Of course, Elizabeth Short probably wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a Black Dahlia. Depending on the bar, her namesake drink can taste like a Manhattan that someone’s spilled some coffee into and, while the genteel folk of her day drank syrupy cocktails, working girls like her went with whatever put them in the mood the quickest. A few years ago, I interviewed Steve Boardner, who remembered Short as someone who would show up at his place with a couple of sailors in tow and drink whatever was cheapest.

“She’d come over here from Bradley’s Five & Ten,” Boardner said, “which sold short beers for a nickel, longs for a dime — and shots of bourbon for 15 cents.”

Even adjusting for inflation, Short doesn’t seem to have been a $14-a-drink gal. Who knows what her final cocktail may have been before she stepped out of the Biltmore and into that winter night? If her last drink ever gets discovered, watch out for a lot of new table tents.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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