Best Of :: Bars & Clubs
Gin is having its moment in the cocktail world, and the Negroni — that classic mix of gin, Campari and Italian vermouth — has offered much inspiration to the bartenders of the world recently. But the Negroni is a glorious drink, and despite the fact that there are many variations, the original is hard to beat. One drink that's basically a Negroni variant that caught our attention and then made us swoon is served at the Varnish, downtown's grown-up cocktail den in the back of Cole's Restaurant. The Nice Legs is made from gin, gentiane liqueur and Barolo Chinato with an orange twist. It is lighter than a classic Negroni, more herbal thanks to the gentiane (a liqueur made from the roots of a wildflower that grows at high altitudes in France) and just the right amount of bitter and refreshing. It's a drink that is at once fun and grown-up, refreshing and perplexing. Consumed in the corner of one of the Varnish's wood booths, it'll have you dreaming of cheating on the Negroni more often. 118 E. Sixth St., dwntwn. (213) 622-9999, 213nightlife.com/thevarnish. —Besha Rodell
There are plenty of warm, welcoming cigar emporiums around L.A., but Buena Vista Cigar Club stands apart, with its secret lodge/hideout ambience and the superior attention to detail of its proprietor/bartender Rigoberto Fernandez, whose roots go back to some of the best Cuban cigar manufacturers. Occupying an older structure on Little Santa Monica in Beverly Hills, the place is a dark, calming clubhouse decorated in what we like to think of as traditional Cuban gentleman/sportsman style. There's lots of wood, some antlers, several old skis, interesting historical photos and even a few stuffed ducks. It has very high ceilings and a partial upstairs level that offers an even greater feeling of privacy. Or sit at the bar and order a stiff, manly drink from Rigo, who, if not literally the Most Interesting Man in the World, at least comes close — and he'll connect you with a fantastic, handpicked cigar at a quite reasonable price. For several gentle hours, you could swear you're no longer in Beverly Hills but rather in Old World Havana. 9715 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 273-8100, buenavistacigarclub.com.
You sit at a neighborly bar where small-plate orders are made up right in front of you, chatting with the especially nice bartenders who oversee Bin 73, a sleek little find amidst the loud Venice Fishing Pier bars and tourist traps. Bin 73's carefully selected wine list, great deals on wine flights and truly generous pours — not to mention the friendly offers of free sips before you choose your wine — help to fill most seats by 6 p.m. During happy hour, the covered sidewalk patio is the spot for people watching. Popular edibles, matched to your big glass of wine, include flatbread pizza topped with caramelized vegetables, mac 'n' cheese and fresh grapes rolled in crushed walnuts and goat cheese. After Bin 73, you may find your usual (perhaps ridiculously expensive) wine bar a bit stingy and stuffy. 18 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. (310) 827-6209, mercedesgrille.com/bin73.htm.
Those who have visited this second incarnation of wildly popular sausage purveyor Wurstküche on a Friday night or Saturday lunch might be bowled over by the suggestion of "quiet." Prime time is marked by lines out the door for food, a deejay bolstering the alternative-club atmosphere and communal tables packed with Venice's finest flannel. Come after the lunch rush but before the dinner masses and the ambience changes entirely. Exposed brick protects you from the oppressive traffic of Lincoln Boulevard. A peripheral glance at the frosted-glass windows will have you mistaking a blazing summer day for a cozy winter afternoon. Sample a rattlesnake-and-rabbit sausage and any of five mustards that accompany it. Take a long quaff from your dimpled mug of Spaten Optimator and try to convince yourself that you're not in the pages of a Dwell magazine Bavarian-lodge spread. Nothing is more satisfying than genuine conversation with the bartender and a leisurely perusal of the rare beer list in off-peak hours. 625 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (213) 687-4444, wurstkuche.com. —Erika Bolden
Of the many establishments that provide an above-average selection of whiskey and cocktails, Glendale's Neat Bar offers perhaps the best value. Attend during peak hours and you'll be subjected to the same industry-standard prices maintained by all comparable bars, but stop by during happy hour and feel that pinching knot in your shoulders begin to loosen. Between 5 and 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, the prices of 300 meticulously appointed spirits are reduced by half. From whiskey to tequila, all available drinks arrive in Neat's signature spirit-and-chaser presentation. Contrary to the current trend in mixology toward pretentious eyedroppers and overwrought foams, these drinks enable an appreciation for the undiluted quality of the booze. The deconstruction allows you to pick up on flavor interactions you might not notice in a mixed cocktail. Lowering prices so considerably in off-peak hours almost feels like a personal favor, permitting even those of us with ramen-noodle budgets to sample those coveted single malts and blends. 1114 N. Pacific Ave., Glendale. (818) 241-4542, facebook.com/theneatbar.
There's a mad-scientist vibe to many modern cocktails, and often it can lead to weird science. How to make a drink that's not just a remix of the classics without veering into the cocktail version of fusion? The flavors probably shouldn't go together, but let's try it anyway! (Wine milkshake, anyone?) The folks at Pour Vous, the newish Hollywood cocktail lounge, get it right by looking for flavors that absolutely belong together but maybe haven't waltzed subtly in a glass before. This is a dance you don't want to miss: The Lapin Fou pairs eau de vie with carrot, ginger, lemon and the sweet herbal cordial Velay Jaune for a drink that tastes like you're standing in the middle of a spring vegetable patch. L'Avenue Nouvelle gives passion fruit a place to shine without too much sweetness; its partners of Calvados, bourbon and lemon lift it up in a tart, fruity but delicate drink. Pour Vous does twists on the classics as well — and does them beautifully — but it's the totally original creations that have us proclaiming notre amour. 5574 Melrose Ave., Hlywd. (323) 871-8699, pourvousla.com.
Some days, you just want to drink like an old man. And while most any bartender in town will whip up a martini with glee, there are some classic drinks that aren't as common, and therefore not as likely to be done right. Luckily, the good folks at dapper West L.A. bar the Wellesbourne have us covered, whether you're looking for the mellow sweetness of an old-fashioned or the deep, bracing pleasure of a Manhattan. Owner Sophie Huterstein and general manager May Lee Lockhart oversee the drinks program. They make a damn fine Sazerac and provide a dark-wood-bedecked, librarylike room in which to enjoy it. The old man in you will grunt approvingly as he takes another sip. 10929 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. (310) 474-0102, thewellesbourne.com.
There are, of course, a half-dozen perfectly lovely restaurants where you can celebrate the day's end in charming downtown Culver City. But Oldfield's, the gloriously old-fashioned "liquor room" on Venice just a mile to the west, has them all beat. One reason is the parking lot — let's face it, when you're meeting someone for happy hour, you're almost always running too late to screw with five floors of a garage, and no one wants to pay a valet on their way to discount drinks. Also nice: the hours, which extend from 5 all the way till 9 p.m. The real reason, though, is significantly more exciting than these practicalities: Oldfield's really is one of the best cocktail bars on the Westside, with lively ambience and an ambitious drinks menu. At happy hour, you can order a Hemingway — Bulleit rye whiskey, maraschino, lime and grapefruit — for just $7. Same with the Blonde Comet, a refreshing mix of grapefruit and lime, Bourbon, créme de pêche and bitters. There's no real food menu to speak of, but the stylish, old-timey barkeeps will be happy to make you a panini. 10899 Venice Blvd., Culver City. (310) 842-8066, oldfieldsliquorroom.com. —Sarah Fenske
A very old, sexy, dark tequila bar hidden behind thick, red curtains in an unassuming storefront on West Third Street near Fairfax, El Carmen has a Mexican wrestling motif on the curved ceiling — and, beneath it, one of the best happy hours in the city. The deliciously tart house margaritas would be shockingly good even if they weren't a mere $5 — no sickly sweet sour mix here — and you can't help but love the idea of a $3 Tecate in this pricey city. But it's the food that really sets El Carmen apart: From 5 to 7 p.m., a quesadilla is just $4; guacamole, $2; and a combo plate of two tacos (carnitas or chicken), plus rice and beans, just $5. You'd pay more for fast food. And did we mention this place is way cooler — and tastier — than McDonald's? The regular menu is worth checking out, too, if rock-bottom bargains aren't your thing. 8138 W. Third St., Fairfax District. (323) 852-1552, elcarmenrestaurant.com.
So you can't afford a trip to Napa to go to Thomas Keller's French Laundry. So what? Not only is Keller the genius behind Beverly Hills' Bouchon but he also has helpfully provided a less formal, less expensive option right underneath it — and right near that free parking garage on North Canon Drive. (Score!) Whether you're outside on the sun-dappled patio or inside at the nickel-plated bar, Bar Bouchon has a low-key vibe and the prices to match up until 7 p.m. Oysters are $2 each; the house white and red wines are just $5 each; and there are several small plates (sliders, crostini, salmon tartare). It's hard to find a place in Beverly Hills that's not swimming with rich old people or clueless tourists — thanks to Keller's pedigree and the primo location, Bar Bouchon feels like a bar you could actually hang out in. 235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 271-9910, bouchonbistro.com.
This spacious seafood restaurant has one of the best patios in Santa Monica: a twinkly, leafy oasis that feels more like something you'd find in New Orleans' French Quarter than a few blocks from a SoCal beach. But the patio isn't even Enterprise Fish Co.'s main draw — that distinction goes to its always hopping happy hour. In the bar area and on that glorious patio, from 4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, you can get wine or well cocktails for $4; margaritas, mai tais and bloody Marys for $5; and really good draft beer (Stella Artois, Hefeweizen, Pacifico) for just $3.50. The food is equally well-priced, with $1 oysters, $4.95 shrimp quesadillas and steamed clams or mussels for $6.95. There's also a late-night happy hour on Fridays and Saturdays if you'd prefer a meat market to a fish-centric one. 174 Kinney St., Santa Monica. (310) 392-8366, www.enterprisefishco.com/santamonica/. —Sarah Fenske
Situated on the ground floor of a high-rise office building on one of the most corporate-looking corners in Westwood, Napa Valley Grille does not seem like a place where PBR would be a hit. Perhaps the clientele is drinking it out of nostalgia for a time when a young man could drink Pabst without irony. Perhaps they just like a deal. Whatever the reason, Milwaukee's finest brew has become an unexpected hit for the bar and a happy hour mainstay. And that's a big deal, because there are few hours at this bar that aren't happy. Monday through Saturday, the deals start at 3 p.m., take a brief breather from 7 to 9 p.m., and then kick back in all the way to closing. On Sunday, they don't even get that breather — from 3 to 11 p.m., the hours stay giddy. There are selected glasses of wine for $4, $6 and $8, some good creative cocktails that change seasonally at $6 and $8, and beer for $4. Unless you're one of those non-hipster Westwood residents who just really likes PBR. Then you're paying $2 for your drink. Maybe that's why everyone is so happy? 1100 Glendon Ave., Wstwd. (310) 824-3322, napavalleygrille.com.