The 1933 Group has a talent for making its bars look lived-in. You step inside one of them - Sassafras, Oldfield's Liquor Room - and feel like, hey, this place has been here for a while. 1933's newest spot, Harlowe, could have been discovered behind a boarded-up storefront, the turn-of-the-century brasserie sleekness meets saloon ruggedness inside, waiting to be discovered. You might pass it by on this quiet Hollywood section of Santa Monica Boulevard, but you would do well to slow down and saunter inside, which you can do tonight as it is the official opening evening.
The space itself blends the decor of the past with the modernity of the current cocktail movement. Antiqued pale green and ivory tiles cover the floors. Soft, but bright enough to check out your barmates, lighting is easy on the eyes, as are the painting of lovely ladies on the walls.
The bar itself - amply stocked with booze and paraphernalia - takes center stage, with a few scattered tables up front, small booths that line the walls, and an ample patio out front. The arrangement seems purposeful, as if to say that this is not a bar where you drink and run. Because of this breezy design, it's less likely to be hipster central, more like local soul.
Unlike a lot of bars, Harlowe serves a solid and eclectic selection of food - charred Brussels sprouts, fish and chips, an open-faced bologna sandwich, even funnel cake, all courtesy of consulting chef Eric Greenspan, of the now-shuttered Foundry on Melrose and of the recently opened Greenspan's Grilled Cheese. The holy triangle in the bar biz - food, drink and stay-a-while comfort - means this place may become the studio commissary of the moment, given its proximity to a number of nearby film lots.
Atmosphere and food aside, one of the main draws here will be the cocktail program created by Dushan Zaric, currently a partner in the 86 Company and owner of the lauded New York bar Employees Only. His classical cocktail point of view (he was trained by industry guru Dale DeGroff) is everywhere - simple ingredients that produce modern takes on classic cocktails.
Zaric's European heritage has inspired a number of aperitif-style drinks on the menu, which don't usually get as much play in the States as they might in the aperitif/vermouth-heavy drinks culture of Europe. The West Hollywood, for instance, is a take on a Manhattan that uses bonded Applejack, Noilly Prat Ambre, dry curaçao and angostura bitters. The finishing touch is an edible Calvados apple garnish.
The Green Acre is an aperitif-heavy riff on a dirty martini, using Aylesbury Duck vodka, Kalamata jus (olive brine mixed with vermouth), funky St. George agricol rum and a mist of bay leaf tincture. It's not for everyone, but when sipped with the complimentary side of marinated feta and olives, it takes on a real raison d'etre.
"I hate being kept in a boundary," Zaric says."This is clearly a classic place. We wanted to do a classic style with modern ingredients and modern techniques."
To his credit, Zaric stepped back after designing the basic menu, allowing his bar team - including Chris Amirault (formerly of Eveleigh) and 1933 manager Kyle Ackley - to lend their own expertise to the menu selection, particularly the draft and bottled cocktails, which take up an entire side of the menu, along with house-made ginger beer, cola and cream soda.
Whether draft or bottled, all the choices run the classic route. On draft, there's a Moscow mule, an old-fashioned, a Paloma and a Negroni. Bottled choices include a G & T (don't flinch at the slightly orange color, it's just the color of the cincoa bark), Americano, sazerac and pisco punch. All of these drinks make for quick service, hopefully ensuring that you don't wait 15 minutes for an overly precious cocktail.
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Likewise, the more modern drinks are relatively pared down, such as Amirault's Captain Planet, which mixes Bols genever with spiced watermelon shrub, lemon juice and club soda; or Ackley's Shandy Koufax, a sort of tiki-style beer cocktail with Cana Brava rum, Meletti (a spiced, bitter orange amaro), pineapple gomme syrup, lemon juice and a California IPA, which adds a tart grapefruit note. Both of these drinks work in an everything-old-is-new-again sort of way.
According to Zaric, all you need is "the right person, ingredients, the right technique." That's what Harlowe clearly strives to offer - talent, quality and experience - and, while in the nascent stages, it appears it will achieve this goal, all in a space where everyone from Doc Holliday to Carole Lombard to Mumford and Sons would most likely want to sit down and stay a while.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.