Upon reflection, 2016 was a great year for cocktails in Los Angeles. The city has hit a perfect point in its drink evolution: The pretension once inherent in mixology is fast falling away, while the tipples themselves are getting more interesting. Many of these bars aren't stand-alone but rather in restaurants. But they're not afterthoughts; now, a given bar staff gives as much care to the drinks as the kitchen does to the food.
As L.A. becomes a worldwide leader in craft cocktails, we take stock of the best bars that opened this year, all full of rare ingredients and plenty of passion. Plus, there's a nod to one bar that is not new at all but has completely reinvented itself this year. A toast, to better drinking.
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This restaurant would not be itself if not for the bar. In fact, the bar's audaciousness is arguably a bigger draw than the food menu, as interesting and high-quality as it is. It serves a $26 mai tai, after all. But that drink is no longer featured on the printed menu, as the bar aims to keep lively and change course every few months, always using work-intensive ingredients such aspink peppercorn and black sesame syrups and infused alcohols that only the biggest drink nerds have heard of. Plus the bar sells pie. Just slices of one pie per day. Why not?
Lots of bars have great cocktails and lots have DJ nights, but rarely do the two concepts meet in harmony. The bartenders eschew seasonality, pointing out that Southern California doesn't really have seasons anymore — might as well make the most of a dire climate situation. Instead, they focus on the bounty that's available here year-round, such asplenty of citrus and more delicate produce like Thai basil. The bar team seems to go out out of its way to find rare ingredients, too, like an Argentine gin made with yerba mate and an aperitif made with cinchona bark.
The cocktails here are good. The menu is a mix of proven formulas — Palomas, Vieux Carrés — and new inventions named after the neighborhoods of L.A., which plays really well in a city as self-absorbed as this one. The Los Feliz is made of gin, Verju Blanc, Dolin Blanc, pear liquor and elderflower; the Filipinotown contains pandan and coconut-infused rum, Bacardi, Montenegro Amaro, vermouth and Angostura bitters. But as much as we respect these cocktails, we must say that the setting really puts this bar over the top. Come at the right time of evening and sit at the bar, and you'll see sunset seep across this whole sprawling city.
The location of this bar is unlikely simply because we don't expect much from that weird stretch of Melrose by Paramount Pictures. But it and its sister restaurant are leaning into a Old Hollywood, 1920s vibe that would be cheesy in lesser hands. The drinks are tailored to contemporary tastes but with a notable nod toward original cocktailing: a lot of bitter flavors and liquors such as brandy, sherry and scotch.
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This is more than a bar, more than a restaurant — Manuela is sort of a full-service play space for adults. With a semirural vibe in the middle of a warehouse-ridden area of downtown, it has a raised-bed garden and chickens clucking and long picnic tables in the huge outdoor space. Which all explains why the drinks are on the pricey side. But they're worth it, utilizing rare ingredients such asmastika, a liqueur derived from evergreen resin. The special stuff is used judiciously — nectarine, citrus sugar, egg white, lemon are matched with regular Beefeater gin, because why gild the sweet, delicious lily?
The sceney Alcove on Hillhurst in Los Feliz has long served alcohol, and the restaurant's Big Bar has been in operation for a number of years now. But it wasn't until bar manager Cari Hah took over in December 2015 that Big Bar became a destination. She and her team aren't afraid of unorthodox pairings and bright colors, and they do especially interesting work with whiskey and rum. Technically Big Bar isn't new at all, but it is wholly reinvented, with drinks among the brightest in town, so full of fresh ideas and unusual ingredients that it deserves a spot on the list.