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.