We have, I think, nearly come to agreement on what an essential restaurant might be in Los Angeles, a place that may have transcendent food or occupy a niche in the social ecosystem, but explains something to us about ourselves. Our ideas on the subject are firm. The nature of an essential cocktail may be more subjective. To one man we know, 55 essential cocktails means 55 glasses of Chivas, because that's all he'll ever drink. To us, an essential cocktail says something about L.A.
Essence has nothing to do with popularity, or even with provenance — Los Angeles was the birthplace of drinks that never should have been born, including the Harvey Wallbanger, the Rusty Nail and the White Russian. (Let us tip a cup, although perhaps not a glass, to the memory of Donato "Duke" Antone, inventor of all of the above.)
There is a pre-Prohibition-era drink called the Los Angeles Cocktail, a boozy flip of whiskey, lemon and egg you've probably never tasted (you can get one at Seven Grand): inessential. There is an entire school of delicious mezcal drinks named after Bricia Lopez, the spirit-loving Oaxacan-restaurant tzarina — too many to pick just one.
Three years into the cocktailian revolution, there remains little agreement about what an essential bar should be, but a rough consensus about how an essential bar should be run. At the best bars, be it the Varnish or the Tiki-Ti, syrups are fresh, juices are prepared daily, and the ice, whether chipped from a giant block or made by a $10,000 machine, is clear and cold. Even a novice can tell a great bar from a mediocre one by the sharpness of the report from the shakers.
A bartender of my acquaintance sometimes daydreams about the conversations he imagines must have unspooled at a bar run by Professor Jerry Thomas, the father of the American cocktail. Talk must have run to boxing, to fishing, to the many sins of President Buchanan. Patrons would have had to talk about the theater, argue about the merits of Wagner and of Brahms, and discover how to sharpen an adze. At his bar, he says, everyone talks about bitters.
But 55 essential cocktails? Why not 99? Why not 82? Why a number associated with that which Sammy Hagar cannot drive? Because I drive. Because I have a human liver. Because however much you may adore the saketini at that little place in Torrance, it is only essential if you happen to be eating a sliver of yellowtail sashimi there at the time.
Anybody who's blasted through Hollywood knows that a martini is what you get at the Musso & Frank Grill: a properly stirred slug of gin served in a tiny glass flagon, which at least theoretically keeps the drink cold for the amount of time it takes to consume an avocado cocktail. You mete it out sip by chilled sip into your glass. I've probably had a hundred of these over the years — actually Gibsons, which are martinis garnished with pickled onions instead of olives. You would be surprised how well they go with chicken potpie. Were these the martinis that nourished William Faulkner during his years as a script doctor for Howard Hawks? Perhaps. But I prefer to imagine him luxuriating in what I have come to think of as a Faulkner's Breakfast: flannel cakes, a side of bacon and a Ramos gin fizz, taken at the civilized hour of 2:30 in the afternoon. He deserved no less. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. (323) 467-7788.
Watcher in the Woods
The bar at the front of Drago Centro, which is a splendid, high-drama place to stop for stuzzichini, Italian snacks, after work or before an evening at the opera, is best known for Jaymee Mandeville's classic Italian cocktails: crisply made Bellinis, Negronis and the occasional Spritz. But Watcher in the Woods is an odd cocktail by anybody's standards, a barbed-wire cage of spun sugar anchoring a complex, bitter roundelay of pine, lavender and mint, like gin bewitched by forest sprites. You may loathe it — many people do — but the shades of green flavor will haunt you for days. 525 S. Flower St., dwntwn. (213) 228-8998.
Might your idea of a cocktail be expansive enough to include a beer float? Because if you are open-minded about these things, it can be mind-blowing, a marriage of cold creaminess and explosive fizz, innocent sweetness and a blast of pungent, hoppy bitterness. As served at Golden State, most famous for its gooey cheeseburgers, the beer float is practically a sacrament, a scoop of brown-bread ice cream from the cult ice cream parlor Scoops moistened gently with Old Rasputin Imperial Stout — caramelized intensity playing against caramelized intensity, brown against brown, rich against richer. The beer float has become almost a standard since Golden State introduced it to Los Angeles, but this is still where you will find it at its best. 426 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. (323) 782-8331.