There's a thin red line -- or perhaps a fuzzy purple one -- between restaurants with good bar programs, and bars with good food. This is a list of the latter: The following are drinking establishments in which you don't feel guilty pulling up a chair just to have a drink, but where the food is much better than it needs to be. These are the perfect places to head after work when you're starving -- to meet up with your friend who already ate. No one's going to look down their nose at you if you just order a glass of wine and pick at your friend's fries.
There are a gazillion bars in town that serve a good burger. But on this list you'll find burgers and dogs and nachos -- as well as salads, sushi, mole and charcuterie. It's bar food, elevated. And there's a nice bonus when you eat dinner in bars: Happy Hour. Many places will slash prices on booze and bites, potables and provisions, spirits and snacks. Keep reading for the best of the bunch. We know there are more bars in town than days in the year, so if we've missed your favorite, add it to the comments section!
10. El Carmen
El Carmen is a tequila bar serving stick-to-your-ribs Mexican fare. The tables are bar-sized; the lighting is dim-to-dark; and the menu, a thick little booklet of 16 pages, only dedicates two of those to food (the rest is the tequila list). But the guacamole is top-notch, the tamales are rich and creamy, and the tacos (particularly the pork taco) more than serviceable.
During Happy Hour here (Monday thru Friday, 5-7 p.m.) eleven bucks will get you a freshly squeezed margarita and a platter of tacos with rice and beans. Plus, this place is just cool. There are Mexican wrestling masks on the ceiling and Mexican wrestler portraits on the walls and you have to walk through a velvet bordello curtain to get in. It's fun. You want to be there. So go. 8138 W 3rd St., Los Angeles; (323) 852-1552.
Tucked into the Warehouse District, just beyond the bistro fare of Church & State, you'll find an industrial little wine bar serving food that's filling and flavorful and far better than you'd expect from their teeny little kitchen. During Happy Hour (4-7 p.m. daily) there are six food options for five bucks: bruschetta, oxtail tacos, white flatbread pizza topped with artichokes and olives, papitas bravas (roast baby potatoes with aioli), a grilled vegetable sandwich, and the insanely addictive Greek nachos.
Crispy pita chips are topped with melted feta, roast eggplant, tomatoes, olives and a tangy tzatziki sauce; you'll wonder why no one thought of these before. Pour Haus serves beer and wine, including generously poured $10 wine flights, and every patron gets a bowl of truffled popcorn to start their evening. Come for a bottle, stay for a plate -- the Mediterranean-influenced menu pairs beautifully with fermented grapes. 1820 Industrial St., Los Angeles; (213) 327-0304.
Compared to so many East Coast cities, Los Angeles is woefully short on delis. Good news, meatball sub fans -- one of our better delis is located inside a bar! Take that, New York! At Spring Street Bar, a high-ceilinged, casual spot of bar stools and communal high-tops, the back corner is dedicated to a cold cuts case and a toaster oven. From that humble spot emerge warm, crusty sandwiches like prosciutto and burrata, Cubano, roast beef, and a killer veggie melt of smoked cheese and avocado.
You may not think you're hungry but once the table next to you puts in an order, the smell alone will inspire you to get one of your own. Don't worry, they're big enough to share -- but be aware, you need to order at the bar, and keep an ear out for the bell meaning your meal's up. Wine, booze, and a good rotation of interesting draught beers will round out the experience. Ding! 626-B S Spring St., Los Angeles; (213) 622-5859.
7. The Prince
You have out of town guests staying with you for the weekend, and you want to show them something uniquely L.A.? Take them to The Prince. It's got Hollywood street cred (with cameos on Mad Men, The New Girl, and Chinatown), it looks mid-century swank (with red leather banquettes, a horseshoe bar and funky carved lights), and it serves Korean food. No kidding. The thing to get here is the deep-fried chicken -- fried Korean-style, with no batter. A whole bird is spatch-cocked and served with Korean chili paste and picked radishes, all crispy skin and moist meat and salt.
Pair it with some kimchi fried rice, maybe a seafood pancake, and some galbi for a full meal. The Prince has beer and soju but also a full bar, and during Happy Hour ('til 8pm) all drinks are half off; be aware that like most Korean establishments in town, you've got to ring the tableside doorbell to get service. Bonus: This may be the one bar in town in which you can snack on spicy sea snails. How's that for "Welcome-to-LA" impressive!? 3198 1/2 W 7th Street, Los Angeles; (213) 389-1586
The first time you drive up to Villains Tavern, you think you're lost: it's out in some weird Gotham City no-man's-land that is kind of Little Tokyo and kind of Downtown L.A. and kind of the "warehouse district" but seems way too dark and scary and then BAM you arrive. And there is this strange place that looks like a circus-tent-slash-New-Orleans-Victorian bar and you're like "what is this place," but then you get one of their incredible cocktails (like the Bluebeard: Jameson, blueberries, lemon, cranberry and egg whites) and you're like "OK, I can get behind this."
And then you look at the menu and order some things that sound interesting and then you are totally pleasantly surprised when a burger with bacon marmalade, spicy roasted corn on the cob topped with cayenne and cotija, and a bowl full of Bourbon-bacon caramel corn make their way to the table. And you eat your above average meal while listening to above average live music and drinking above average libations and you think "I'm in heaven" but then you look around at all the red lighting and steampunk décor and you wonder if maybe you're just having a really good time in hell. 1356 Palmetto St., Los Angeles; (213) 613-0766.
5. Library Bar
Hidden behind Sixth Street Tavern, Library Bar has a speakeasy-ish vibe: dark, book-lined, candlelit, sultry. Cocktails, wine, and beer are top notch -- muddled, mixed and poured by well-trained (and well-dressed) bartenders. Yet the beautiful people populating the mirrored bar and the leather couches are looking good and eating well - dipping into garlic fries, pork belly skewers, chorizo sliders.
The bacon-wrapped dates are salty and sweet, oozing sharp blue cheese hot from the oven. There are deviled eggs, roast artichokes, and edamame tossed with lime juice and flakes of sea salt. Go big with a burger or pork belly sandwich, or go decadent with grilled cheese made with buttered raisin bread, apricot jam and three kinds of dairy. Just wipe your fingers before you start thumbing through those hardcovers on the shelves behind you. 630 W 6th St #116A Los Angeles; (213) 614-0053.
The York just might be the Cheers of Highland Park. It's the perfect neighborhood spot: there's usually a game or an old movie on the TV, and there's usually no trouble finding a seat. Local artists hang their work up by the bar, and it's the kind of place where the bartender won't just remember your name -- she'll remember your drink.
But next time you pull up a stool for a beer (and they have a serious selection), do yourself a favor and pair it with an impeccable burger, juicy and oozy with melted cheese, or a bowl of mussels -- spicy, garlicky, and served with grilled bread. Fries are crisp, hot, light on the grease, and ideal to share with friends (for a slightly more "healthful" snack, go for the fried garbanzos, tossed in cayenne and lemon). On weekends you can brunch to cure your hangover with croissant French toast or eggs Benedict -- just don't be surprised if you find yourself hanging out there all day. 5018 York Blvd., Highland Park; (323) 255-9675.
Bustling at nearly every hour of the day, Laurel Tavern is one of those great neighborhood joints that feels like the place to be. Once you're in the door, the energy is infectious. It's casual -- you seat yourself, and have to walk up to the bar to order both booze and food -- and convivial, with people chatting between tables and standing out on the sidewalk. They've got a dozen beers on tap, wine by the glass and craft cocktails; but pay close attention to the chalkboards on the wall.
Listed there you'll find a range of things to nosh on: from the light (a fabulous marinated/grilled artichoke, beets with burrata, grilled shishito peppers) to the substantial (chorizo fondu, patty melt, bbq ribs). They've got five yummy burger options, and claim to have the best one in the neighborhood: we'll let you be the judge. 11938 Ventura Blvd, Studio City; (818) 506-0777.
Mission Cantina is tough to characterize, but right there on their website they qualify themselves for this list: "The Mission is a bar with fresh homemade Mexican food." Mission is in fact a tequila bar, an impressive gothic-looking cave with bottles stacked all the way to the ceiling. But it's got some of the best Mexican food in this part of town, including chile rellenos, enchiladas (verde & rojo), and a rich chicken mole poblano, deeply flavored with chocolate, spice and spiciness.
They also serve tamales on the weekend. But the day to go is (Taco) Tuesday -- when their tacos are a dollar apiece: carne asada, carnitas, chicken, potato and veggie. Top a couple of those carnitas tacos with onions, cilantro and salsa, pair it with one of their top-notch jalapeno margaritas. Life doesn't get much more bueno than that. 5946 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood; (323) 469-3130.
This relative newcomer to Ventura Blvd. (opened in 2011) is fast becoming the local favorite, filling up quickly and staying busy 'til closing time -- 2 a.m. every night of the week. The room is vaguely reminiscent of a tunnel, long and dark under a curved ceiling of inlaid brick. Candles flicker on every table, booths ring the walls, marble high tops cluster in the center of the room, and a polished wood bar hugs the length of the place. There's a full bar, a list of "fancy drinks," two-dozen beers and an interesting wine list -- but the real stunner is the food menu.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Follow your gut. Want a few beers and guy food? Dig into the homemade dill potato chips, the sweet-spicy kimchi chicken wings, or the highly addictive fried cauliflower. On a date? There is very little sexier than the ricotta gnudi, sautéed in a brown butter sauce (eaten over flickering candlelight with a few glasses of wine). Smoked trout toast is a thing of casual beauty -- and a good indicator of chef Antonia Lofaso's skill in the kitchen -- open-faced baguette strewn with hard-boiled egg and pickles, served on a cutting board. Still hungry? They've got a deep fried fluffer-nutter for dessert. 'Nuff said. 11915 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 446-2533.
Want access to our Best Of picks from your smartphone? Download our free Best Of app for the iPhone or Android phone from the App Store or Google Play. Don't forget to check out the full Best of L.A.® online at LA Weekly Best Of.
Follow the author @ErinELyall. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.