The neighborhood bar is a tough thing to define. Sometimes, it occupies the intersection of dive and sport. Sometimes, it's a lounge time has thankfully forgotten. When a comfortable neighborhood bar gets too crowded, it turns into a destination, overrun by scene-seekers for a spell until it can shine no brighter. And then, like a red dwarf, it fades and sinks back into obscurity, emitting just enough light to satisfy the locals who discovered it first. If we neglected to mention your own favorite, be relieved, not indignant. If we named your favorite hangout, we're sorry. At the same time, the 10 neighborhood bars that follow aren't secrets. As if we'd tell you those.
Classy yet understated, the interior of El Prado, at least what you can see of it through the shadows, is dominated by the long wooden bar and the broad chalkboard peering down from the wall behind the bar advertising tasty things like Delirium Tremens and St. Bernardus. An Echo Park standby, El Prado focuses on wine and craft beers, but its menu is blessedly no model of consistency. The taps and bottles seem to change more frequently than the records spinning on the turntable. The turntable is behind the bar, too, but the 'tenders here are more than capable of sliding vinyl out of sleeves and topping off pints at the same time. There is no food beyond nibbles -- salami, goat cheese, olives and so forth -- but you can have an iffy pizza slice across the street for a third of the price of a tasting plate. Or a solid taco for even less. Come on a Tuesday, when the dudes from Origami Vinyl preside over Record Club Night. 1805 W. Sunset Blvd., Echo Park. (213) 484-6079.
With its stone exterior and drab sign advertising cocktails and a "giant TV," Canoga Park's Instant Replay just looks like a place where patrons cheerfully give nonregulars the stink-eye. And it is, you'll find out, if you stroll in breezily when a crowd of them have gathered. Yet, with as many as eight craft selections on tap, swift, friendly service, darts and (blessedly) plenty of parking, Instant Replay, in other ways, is as welcoming as a neighborhood joint can get. This is no easy feat, especially considering that the goal of a neighborhood joint's regular clientele is usually to make nonregular walk-ins never want to return. As an added bonus, Tacos Reyes' taco truck often parks directly outside, offering some steaming cabeza tacos to pair with those mildly esoteric brews you're swilling down. 21927 Saticoy St., Canoga Park. (818) 712-0628.
The Mandrake is not in Hollywood. The Mandrake is not filled with Ed Hardy shirts straining to conceal ballooning biceps. The Mandrake has art. This means, of course, by some standards, that the Mandrake is edgy, a hipster hangout. Like mounds of driftwood, low-slung tables line the small room where the bar sits, directly opposite the door through which you enter. That bunker spills into a dance-floor space with white walls and high ceilings, where two wooden picnic tables tip and heave beneath the weight of leaning, liquored customers and a projection of a cozy fire crackles on the screen behind the tables, and still further back, outside, where a patio fills up with smokers. The Mandrake wants people to dance, but there is a problem. The music is too loud for talking and yet not good enough to draw out the kind of dedicated, deliberate, focused dancing that aunties do at weddings -- the only dancing, we believe, that you should ever do. It doesn't help that the sound system is comparable to the speakers in a mid-'90s Corolla, the bass fuzzy and the high ends piercing. If talking is your aim, you will scream until you sound like Gilbert Gottfried. Despite the dearth of dancing aunties or conversation, though, this a nice place to drink, staffed by friendly folk. 2692 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 837-3297.
Inspired by its namesake, Los Feliz's Bigfoot wallows in forest-y tropes -- bartenders in scout garb, park signage, bathrooms labeled "buck" and "doe" and plenty of stuffed fauna -- but it doesn't forget that the aim of a bar is not to elicit a giggle or two but to sell drinks and lubricate relations between friends old and new. From the Girl Scout Cookie to the Toasted Marshmallow, the drinks are fine, but the real appeal is the scene -- aided substantially by cozy booths and a popular karaoke night. The noise level makes quiet conversation an impossibility, but the people-watching possibilities are considerable. 3172 Los Feliz Blvd., Atwater Village. (323) 662-9227.
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The name of this Eagle Rock establishment calls to mind a medieval tavern where knaves and wenches might slosh around huge carafes of rudimentary suds beneath animal heads and crossed swords. With its exposed-stone interior walls, faintly Tudor exterior and roaring fireplace, the looks suit the name. At the same time, there are also flat-screen televisions and food trucks parked outside to bring you back to the 21st-century metropolis. From foosball to darts, games are big at the Black Boar, especially at Happy Hour, when well drinks and draft beers cost $3. An added bonus? The bar has an extensive dress code, a highlight of which is a ban on Ed Hardy shirts. 1630 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. (323) 258-8800.
5. HMS Bounty:
At this venerable Koreatown heap with the nautical theme, big guys with rolling bellies loll at the bar, flinging stories like spitwads. Brooding drifter types hunch over brown bottles. A few blue-haired ladies perch in a leather-coated booth, slicing up their ribeyes neatly and sipping dirty martinis. The pink-and-white cloths adorning many of the tables are a deft touch. Once a hangout for musicians and younger folk seeking refuge from Hollywood hot spots, the Bounty seems to have reverted back to type, which can't be a bad thing, unless semi-dives aren't, in fact, your thing. Nestled alongside the lobby of the Gaylord, it's essentially a hotel bar that has gone to pot, mutinied against itself, those cloths frayed around the edges, the framed photographs fading into the walls. We will never complain about a dearth of craft draft beers or the absence of an "artisanal" cocktail menu long on infusions, egg white froth and heavenly tinctures that must be administered via dropper. The cold bottles and cheap well drinks will do. However, we would almost rather eat hardtack softened in saltwater than sample another one of the Bounty's cold, floury onion rings. We tried a chicken wing, too, and thought we were tangling with an overgrown cricket. Steer clear of the food and fill up on drinks. 3357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 385-7275.
In our experience, bars known by a person's name followed by an apostrophe and an "s" tend to be good ones -- in a help-yourself-to a-bag-of-stale popcorn-drink-your-$3-mystery draft-and-stock-the-jukebox-with-Creedence kind of way. At Sheddy's, though, the bathrooms aren't pocked with witless marker-scrawled diatribes, the stall doors snapped off to discourage toilet seat coke-sniffers. There is also cheese. And fancy ham. And Ethiopian dried beef jerky that, before it reconstitutes and blooms, tastes alarmingly like magic mushrooms. The interior is dark and red, with wobbly wooden tables lining one wall, some stools along a small bar and, in the back, a few cushion-lined booths. Incense perfumes the air; modern rock plays on the stereo. It's loud, but not uncomfortably so, smelly, but in a nice way. No classic sippin' beers grace the menu, but $4 bottles of Molson work well enough -- that is, if you don't want to go with something weightier from the worldly beer selection. In addition, happy hour runs from 5-8 p.m. on weekdays, and knocks a few dollars off domestic bottles. Imagine a Scrimshaw Pilsner, for example, for $3, and then go to Sheddy's and experience the reality. 361 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-1442.
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You can imagine some pretty based stuff happening at the White Horse in Hollywood. A few creeps stumble around outside. Inside, the lights are sleazy red and dim; the counter is red, too, and the Afghan Whigs and Jane's Addiction provide the debauched soundtrack. Yet the climate is fairly cozy. Soft, mismatched couches are set up around a low table in one corner. A buffet of snacks awaits at all hours -- pretzels, cookies, and popcorn. If you're snacking hard, the bartender slides over more munchies as needed -- the tattooed, pool-shooting version of a doting grandma. Sure, a few of the sketchballs might gently interrupt your conversation just to say hi and grin, but they're harmless. In a nice touch, photographs plaster the walls wrapping around the bar. Even when the place is empty, you're surrounded by humanity. 1532 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 462-8088.
Shaped like a ragged wedge of cheese hacked carelessly from its wheel, this endearing heap is a collection of acute angeles, its profile from the outside thinner than a cracker. The Harbor Room is truly small, a bathroom-sized bar slung like a purse along the side of a dreary Italian joint in Playa del Rey. The bathroom itself is hardly larger than a phone booth. There's a faded '80s Lakers poster and a wheezy jukebox where you'll find classic-rock greatest-hits packages, 20-year-old pop compilations and a few country albums. You'll find no taps here -- beers are bottled only -- but cocktails are the thing. It's a joy to watch the bartender work. He has been doing this for longer than you've been alive, or at least we'd like to think that. Vested and white-haired, he is big, looming over to take an order as if he's floating, but he moves with the sort of casual grace only practice produces, a feat considering he can barely turn around behind the bar. He'll make you a great Manhattan and you'll drink it and marvel at the collection of dusty characters drifting through. 195 Culver Blvd., Playa Del Rey. (310) 821-6550.
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The lights are bare but low, illuminating small spheres of the curved wooden bar here and there. Half-awake bikers snuggle in booths with heavily tattooed dames. Aspiring cougars in sequins swish through the narrow spaces between tables and stools. A white guy in a black tank top hops up to rap a karaoke rendition of "California Love," and the bikers nod along. Some patrons shoot pool in the back, but most participate in that most ancient and popular of bar-room pastimes: leering. They hang back along the edges of the room, scuzzy friends gathered around, grinning, sipping and occasionally stumbling over to the bar to get another drink -- usually a tequila shot or a 24 oz. can of Tecate. At the Tattle Tale Room, karaoke happens every night of the week, which isn't necessarily a good thing -- unless the blue-wigged bartender is doing her rendition of "Fade Into You." Hungry patrons make do with pretzels and stale peanuts. On the plus side, it's a Packers bar, the drinks are as cheap as the decor, and most of the late-night brawlers have the decency to take their scraps to the pavement outside. 5401 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 390-2489.
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