The New Cocktailians
It is nearing one a.m., and the music has started to fade, and the quarrel that seemed so important over dinner has already crumbled out of memory. The friends you ran into on the street outside hurried home long ago; people who slide out of bars before midnight are built of different, sterner stuff. The evening slips by at a silky, languid pace. A pretty girl is at your side — the girls are all pretty in this dim, masculine light — and Eric Alperin, the young man on the other side of the bar, who — like all serious bartenders in Los Angeles at the moment sports the vest and rolled-up sleeves of a picnic-scene extra in a silent movie — is measuring out a fantastically complicated series of liquids from a row of unmarked laboratory beakers. Some half-dozen of them come together into a frosty, ice-filled metal shaker into which the bartender plops a single fresh egg white separated from its yolk with an elaborate wire device.
Alperin shakes the canister, and then shakes some more, arms extended at a perfect 45 degrees, his body motionless, the rhythm falling somewhere between a rhumba and a foxtrot. (At this level, bartending must be a great core exercise.) As the ice wears down, the sound softens from a crack to a rattle, and at the moment just before it deteriorates into a slushy sound, he cracks open the shaker, pours the contents through a filter, stirs in a bit of seltzer, and gently sets down a cylinder of marble-white liquid, thickened with a hint of foam, which goes down your throat like cold milk and has a subtle, persistent back taste of what you know to be orange-flower water. This is a Ramos Fizz, perhaps the greatest of all the New Orleans cocktails, and you have never had one so fine.
If you were to close your eyes and imagine the perfect wee small-hours bar, it might look a bit like the Varnish, an intimate, odd-shaped space tucked into the back of an old downtown building, quiet when it needs to be, equipped with deep leather booths, showcasing its bartenders behind a perforated steel counter. The bar itself has no stools, although the edges are padded for easy leaning, and the cocktail list is short, a bare eight drinks, which are all classics, although mostly classics that probably haven’t been served in this part of town since the 1930s — and in at least one case, the Gin & It, a drink traditionally consisting of half gin, half sweet vermouth, served un-iced at room temperature, perhaps not even then. (Does the Varnish serve a great Gin & It? It might. I haven’t been brave enough to try.)
Other bars exist to facilitate love, to hang out, to provide comfortable spots for watching the Lakers, to dance, to watch turtle races, to obliterate that nagging sense of self. These are all fine things. The Varnish, a joint project of Alperin, downtown impresario Cedd Moses and New York’s cocktail Yoda, Sasha Petraske — whose Lower East Side bar Milk & Honey may have kick-started the New Cocktalian movement in America — is an idealist’s vision of the perfect cocktail bar, a place where drinks can be celebrated as a great American artform, like abstract expressionism, Fred Astaire movies, or jazz.
Do you remember the week when you suddenly realized that club DJs had become exponentially more important than the musicians who made the records they played, or the day when everyone decided that bacon belonged in dessert? This is the Cocktail Moment in Los Angeles, the moment when the appletini is finally replaced by a well-made Jack Rose, and the Jack and Coke by a properly made old-fashioned, when people started to realize that the $40 vodka endorsed by the famous rappers didn’t taste any better than the $4 stuff from the back shelf of Trader Joe’s. In some of the best restaurants in town now, the bartender may be as well-known as the chef and even more creative; it is no longer considered odd even in places like Sona and Anisette to accompany your meal with carefully made cocktails instead of wine.
Los Angeles has seen its cocktail moment before. This was, after all, the home of the Rat Pack, as alcohol-identified a group of men as any in history, who turned Hollywood into a drunken after-hours party even as they raised saloon-singing to a great American art. If the Rat Pack had a house cocktail, it was probably the Flame of Love, a sherry-rinsed variation on the vodka martini invented by Pepe Ruiz, the longtime bartender at Chasen’s, for Dean Martin. Sinatra used to order 20 at a time. Dale DeGroff, considered the father of the modern cocktail movement, spent decades behind the bar at the Bel Air Hotel. The fad for tiki bars began here, in the Hollywood bars of the 1930s, and the American taste for vodka was launched in Hollywood at the old Cock n’ Bull, as part of a tasty highball called the Moscow Mule. Hollywood always had a thing for a fine gin martini, with its caressing bitter chill, its burst of aromatics, and the terrible, crystalline clarity that carried within it the elements of its own demise.
I think I first realized that Los Angeles again had become a cocktail town last year when Campanile chef Mark Peel insisted I taste something he’d been working on, a discovery so important that he was planning to build a new restaurant around it, and he sent over neither a perfect spiral of Chino Ranch Romanesco nor a bit of sustainable sweetfish, neither a 100-point Grenache fashioned by his friend Manfred Krankl nor a kumquat of surpassing elegance, no Umbrian olive oil nor smidge of miracle fruit. What he set down was a tumbler of sweet pink liquid, fruity and acidic, with a pleasant high note of what might have been fresh peach. I didn’t mention it at the time, but the drink reminded me a little of an alcoholic Hi-C.
I’ve known Peel since I was a teenager, when he was a surly young line chef married to the performance-artist sister of the guitarist of a punk-rock band I was in, and I have never known his culinary enthusiasms to be anything but pristine. He was the guy who was always figuring out new ways to raise Sonoma lamb, always conspiring to bring in a better grade of chicken. He was first around here on live sea urchin, grilled tuna niçoise, salsa verde, $50 glasses of eaux de vie, white Alaskan salmon and Kobe-style beef. When he and Nancy Silverton started Campanile, he used to drive 100 miles to Chino Ranch a couple of times a week to pick up the fruits and vegetables for the restaurant, and there were years when it was easier to track the changing of the seasons by the produce that showed up on his grilled-vegetable plate than it was by looking at the weather outside. And now what was he excited about? A 19th-century concoction known as the Fish House Punch, given a perfect Cocktail Moment twist of fresh, organic peach.
There are some theories about the Cocktail Moment, and some of them ring true. For a certain kind of modern chef, cocktails are ideal companions for food — their effects can be controlled and modulated with far more precision than a mere glass of wine, whose broad levels of flavor and varying acids can seem almost crude in comparison. You’ve seen this sort of logic before — it’s why the old-school deconstructionist literary critics preferred comic books and pulp novels to actual fiction: It was easier to make their own ideas fit. At Bazaar, Jose Andres’ palace of molecular gastronomy in the new SLS Hotel, the most spectacular effects are actually manifested more in the cocktails than they are in the food, as with the mojito poured over a fluffy cloud of cotton candy or the dirty martini garnished with gelatinized globes of puréed olives, the caipirinha turned to slush with liquid nitrogen or the margarita topped with evanescent salty foam — all elements that introduce the ingredient of elapsing time into the recipe book.
The nostalgia angle is also important to the Cocktail Moment, of course — it can feel almost subversive to mix a cocktail that your great-grandmother might have enjoyed, to sidestep the pop-culture battles by adopting a kind of steam-punk groove, and to a generation of drinkers raised. For the first time since Repeal, the proper materials are available — last year was the first time in 90 years, for example, that a bartender could make a Sazerac with real absinthe — and there has been a resurgence in things like small-batch artisanal rye. The Cocktail Moment brings drinking from its Mannerist period, home to Jell-O shots and Slippery Nipples, sickly sweet cosmopolitans and chocolatinis, to a crisp neoclassic period, prepared by bartenders who revere old manuals by Harry Craddock, Jerry Thomas and David Embury; who prepare punches and shrubs and fizzes; who strive to caress the taste of the rare and artisanal rye whiskies and aromatic gins and old rums they adore rather than disguise them with sticky fruit.
Some of the credit for this moment belongs to Cedd Moses, who owns a lot of the downtown bars that could be called glamorous at the moment, including Broadway Bar, Casey’s and the Golden Gopher. He had his moment of conversion when he visited the Kentucky house of Booker Noe for a “Bourbon-Q’’ a few years ago, and tasted the 125-proof cask-strength whiskey the Jim Beam distiller served with his caramelized pork chops, which had also been soaking in the spirit. Moses, the son of brilliant Venice abstract painter Ed Moses, was originally from rural Bristol, Tennessee, where summer afternoons at his grandmother’s house were spent drinking mint juleps, then switching to old-fashioneds when the fireflies came out, and that cask-strength whiskey spoke to him in a way no spirit quite had before. Moses’ next bar, Seven Grand, in an upstairs space that used to belong to the white-glove cafeteria called the Silver Spoon, was a cocktail bar that concentrated on whiskey in a huge way, bringing back the juleps and Sazeracs and sours that had languished in the land of the poorly made cocktail for decades. The Doheny, Moses’ membership club near Staples, delved even deeper into the classic cocktail repetoire, instituting things like absinthe service, which probably hadn’t existed in Los Angeles since Mary Pickford was a girl; reviving the Blue Blazer, a 19th-century specialty from bartender Jerry Thomas, the Escoffier of cocktails, which involves flaming Scotch whisky poured between glasses from the greatest possible distance; and a real, old-style Tom Collins.
Sometimes it seems as if the best cocktails in Los Angeles have all been designed by a cabal, pretty drinks dosed with cucumber or grapefruit; tinged with elderflower; powered by extrapotent gin; sharpened by the bitter orange-peel tang of Aperol, a northern Italian aperitif you probably hadn’t heard of 18 months ago but which seems to flavor two-thirds of the new drinks in town. And at a certain level they are designed by the same few guys, a contingent of ronin bartenders — guys like Alperin, Vincenzo Marianella, Matthew Eggleston, Daniel Nelson, all friends, all loosely affiliated with the informal craft guild organized by Edison’s Marcos Tello — who roam from restaurant to restaurant as consultants, creating superior drink lists for their clients but often remaining in one spot just long enough to make sure that Red Bull and Grey Goose are banished from the premises.
If the cocktail scene in Los Angeles had a face, it would probably belong to Marianella, a tall, slender Friulian guy who once played professional basketball in Milan, and whose combination of dolefulness and good bone structure causes women to stop in the street and stare. (I spent a single morning roaming the Santa Monica farmers market with him, and I got at least half a dozen e-mails later that day asking, you know, who he was.) Marianella learned technique working in cocktail bars in London, and when he opened the bar at Providence, chef Michael Cimarusti challenged him to taste. If John Calthorp and Alperin are the Rolling Stones of the scene, the ones who achieve their dark effects through strict adherence to classic form, Marianella may be closer to the Beatles, effortlessly spinning off drink after drink in style after style, his only signature a kind of wistful, minor-key sunniness.
Back at the Varnish, there has been a Remember the Maine, which is kind of a variation on the Manhattan tinged with cherry and absinthe, a long look at a Stinger, and something called a Palma Fizz, which I can only describe as what Coca-Cola might taste like in heaven. I have had a long discussion about ice. Marcos Tello and Matthew Eggleston have come behind the bar, which now resembles the bartender equivalent of the NBA West all-star team. (“Does that make Petraske Phil Jackson?’’ I ask. “No, no, no, you don’t understand,’’ Alperin says. Sasha is Kobe. Cedd is Phil Jackson.’’) And as I prepare to pay the check, I notice that the three are engaged in the competitive sport of every great bartender since drinking began: the attempt to layer crème de violette and green Chartreuse and Aperol and crème de menthe and God knows what else into a delicate, many-layered drink. If Maddenball ever wants to branch out from football into the fine art of video poussé-café, I’ve got just the guys they need.
Where to Drink Now: The New Cocktailian's Guide
One of the last of the original generation of tiki joints, which some assert are L.A.’s real contribution to the cocktail universe, Bahooka is the kind of place you’d expect to find near a scruffy tropical seaport, all rusted nautical gear, stolen street signs and scarred dark wood, lit like a Navy-base bar and with more bobbing tropical fish than you’d find in a Jacques Cousteau special. Lifeboats hang out back — after the bar closes on weekends, you’ll always find a giggling kid or two waving from inside of one. The drive back home from Rosemead seems halfway to Samoa some nights, especially when you’re on the outside of a Monsoon or a Jet Pilot, a Shark’s Tooth or a Cobra Strike, and the mostly deep-fried cuisine isn’t something you’re going to be happy to have eaten the next day, but Bahooka is one of the better places in the metropolis to stoke a craving for demon rum. Because is there anything more romantic than two straws in a single Flaming Honey Bowl? I thought not. As a bonus, it is very close to the Glendon Hotel, where the KoGi taco truck sets up shop for a couple of hours early on Saturday evenings. 4501 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead, (818) 285-1241.
Campanile has always been a few steps ahead on the beverage front. It was among the first restaurants in Los Angeles to feature obscure super-Tuscans, ahead of the curve on Swiss eaux de vie, and definitely the first local grappa list to break into triple figures. There was a time when Campanile was probably in possession of every single bottle of Piemontese freisa in the United States, and it cornered the market on the odd hand-labeled liquors of Romano Levi. The wine list is legendarily deep in Barolos and in Rhônes. So it makes a strange sort of sense that Mark Peel, the chef-proprietor, has lately become as obsessed with cocktails as he used to be with grilled lamb — old concoctions like the Aviation; new ones like the restaurant’s signature Belltower, fizzy and bitter; and a warm winter drink, Johnny’s Punch, made with crème fraîche, 12-year rum, bitter almond and organic Fuji apples among other things, a cocktail as complicated in its effects as anything from Campanile’s pastry kitchen. You will not be surprised to hear that Peel has a new, even more cocktail-intensive restaurant under construction for a projected fall opening. 646 S. La Brea Ave., L.A., (323) 938-1447.
Ciudad is a phenomenon unto itself, the pan-Latin outpost of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, whose moqueqa, fritanga and lomo saltado earned in polish and impeccable sourcing whatever they may lack in “authenticity.” Once one of the very few sophisticated restaurants downtown, now Ciudad seems even more valuable as a linchpin of the downtown scene. And while the restaurant may be all things to all people, Milliken and Feniger were in very early on the quality drinks thing — their City Restaurant would have nailed the Weekly’s prize for best margarita back in the 1980s if the tasting panel hadn’t been corrupted by the ex-El Coyote bartender who then worked at the paper as an editor — and Ciudad functions very well as a bar, especially to those whose pleasures include upending an oyster or two and digging into a ceviche plate every now and then: There are strong mojitos, mellow Pisco sours and an inspiring collection of rum. 445 S. Figueroa St., dwntwn., (213) 486-5171.
Cole’s, Cedd Moses’ revitalized French dip parlor that happens to be the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles, has recently been reborn as a meta-tavern. Because while it is still home to a formidable hand-carved pork dip sandwich and a very decent businessmen’s bar, it is also the physical space one must traverse to get to the Varnish, the tiny, speakeasy-like bar hidden behind what looks like a broom-closet doorway in the rear. What this means is that on a crowded Saturday night, you will probably end up drinking a merely superb rye old-fashioned as the preamble to the actually mind-blowing Gin and It you may taste when a table finally becomes free at the smaller bar, or muddle through an order of bacony potato salad and what might have been the best brandy Sazerac of your life if its resinous absinthe smack had not been muted by the knowledge of the liquid nirvana only a drunkard’s stumble away. Does time at Cole’s drag on like the endless D-League games that precede the Lakers when you get to Staples Center too early? Not quite. Cole’s is a destination bar in its own right, snooty enough that former regulars objecting to $10 mixed drinks are regularly sent up the street to King Eddy’s, where the cheap whiskey shots and tawdry City of Night vibe still exist unmolested by the local loft crowd. But still — there you are in Bacchus’ waiting room. At times like these, we recommend a champagne cocktail. 118 E 6th St., dwntwn., (213) 622-4090.
Chef David Myers is one of those annoying overachievers your mom always hoped you would be, the kind of guy who goes through intensive SEAL training where most of us would just join a gym, sets up an exquisite bakery instead of buying in bread, opens a pizza parlor instead of settling for the Angeli number on his speed dial. Nobody’s tasting menus are as elaborate as the ones he prepares at Sona. When he decided to stick something homey on the lunch menu at his brasserie Comme Ça, he came up with not just a cheeseburger but the cheeseburger, the Midwestern-inflected patty to which all others aspire.
So when he set up the bar at Comme Ça, it became inevitably a cocktailian dreamland, a place as chef-driven as the rest of his empire. (I seem to remember that at one point, possibly around the time Myers was collaborating with famously demanding sushi chef Kazunori Nozawa, a customer was allowed to specify what spirit she might enjoy in a cocktail, but not what might be done to it.) For most of the restaurant’s life, the menu of bar chef Joel Black was limited to four drinks, chief among them Milk and Honey’s famous Scotch-based fresh-lemon, fresh-ginger and honey cocktail, Penicillin, though also including a kind of bramble that might constitute the one permissible non-breakfast use of blackberry compote. (Milk and Honey’s Sam Ross, the inventor of the drink, came up with the first drinks menu at the restaurant.) The bar menu recently expanded to a whopping 18 drinks, including a very creditable Manhattan, but you are still probably better off just giving Black carte blanche. 8479 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 782-1178.
At Copa d’Oro, the ubiquitous Vincenzo Marianella — is working the locavore groove: Patrons at the bar, run in conjunction with Buddha’s Belly owner Jonathan Chu, are invited to select from a list of spirits, fresh herbs and produce bought at the farmers market around the corner, and Marianella and his team improvise a cocktail on the spot. Tangerine, sage and Right Gin? Bell pepper, kumquat and Sazerac Rye? No problem. The drinks menu includes a selection of cocktails invented by Marianella’s friends and mentors from bars in London and around the United States, as well as some of his own greatest hits: the Apple One, his Smoke of Scotland made with 110 proof Laphroaig cask-strength single malt, and his infamous Sour Kraut, a gin sour flavored with almost homeopathic doses of marmalade and Dijon mustard, which are completely imperceptible until somebody tells you what they are. 217 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 576-3030.
The Doheny is the sanctum sanctorum of cocktail culture in Los Angeles at the moment, a luxurious bunker, incongruously located at the rear of a downtown parking garage, dedicated to the art of cocktails without compromise. The filigree on the mirrors was painted by Shepard Fairey; the men’s room is papered with old stock certificates; and general manager Steve Livigni, who manages to mash up laconic dude-in-a-band style with the gaslit workingman’s hauteur of the 1890s, is quick to show newcomers through the glassed-in Art Deco patio built for the pleasure of Edward L. Doheny, indirectly the inspiration for the Daniel Day-Lewis character in There Will Be Blood, and whose politically connected oil company was more or less the Halliburton of the 1920s. Where other ambitious bars in town display 300 bottles of tequila or whiskey, the Doheny’s exquisitely curated stash may be no larger than that at your neighborhood bar; where other bars of this stature pride themselves on encyclopedic cocktail menus, the list at Doheny takes up but a few slim pages of large type, much of which is dedicated to the details of the bar’s elaborate tableside absinthe service. Where it is appropriate, drinks are poured over custom chunks of ice the size of Louisville Slugger handles, which resist melting with the tenacity of the polar ice caps.
As at any Cedd Moses–run bar, you can find a decent roster of nearly forgotten classic cocktails — Blue Blazer, French 75, Clover Leaf, Blood and Sand — but most of the drinks are concocted by the staff. And if you should happen to come on an evening that the KoGi taco truck is parked out back, you may run into Korean-themed cocktails that lead bartender Daniel Nelson willed into being just a few minutes before opening time. If you haven’t chased a plate of KoGi blood sausage with a Sesame Song, a drink whose ingredients include vodka, black sesame seeds, red corn silk and ruddy Korean chile powder, you really should. The Doheny is famous for its exclusivity — on one level, it operates as a fantastically expensive private club, and it is kept intentionally uncrowded — but the door is occasionally cracked open for events, including KoGi appearances, and if you are truly serious about cocktails, it’s not much harder to get into than, say, the Magic Castle. 714 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown.
Downtown towers gleam through its massive picture windows; a mammoth Bauhaus sculpture soars in the foreground. Drago Centro owns one of the most glamorous urban views imaginable, a panorama that would have worked equally well in an Astaire-Rogers picture or one of the early Georgia O’Keeffes, back when that artist was painting skyscrapers instead of blossoms. On a stark white tablecloth, in a delicately masculine cocktail glass, a liquid glows pink; a bead of condensation trickles; a thin stray wafer of ice melts into the drink. Even if you are a wine drinker — especially if you intend to plunder Drago Centro’s superbly fashioned list of Italian wines — there is occasionally nothing so appealing before dinner as a perfect Negroni, a frosty, pellucid tincture of gin and bittersweet Campari that unlocks appetite like a magically calibrated key. At such times it is possible to become pathetically grateful that Vincenzo Marianella is so promiscuous with his favors. 525 S. Flower St., dwntwn., (213) 228-8998.
When I worked a block away from the Edison, back when that corner represented urban blight rather than tasty artisanal pizza, the mephitic breath pulsing from the building was so bad that my colleagues often crossed the street to avoid even a hint of its presence, and the Weekly once nominated the alley that the bar opens onto as the worst-smelling street in L.A. But the revitalized Edison is a thoroughly amazing urban space, all towering ceilings and teetering staircase and banks of copper turbines receding into the distance, the kind of spectacular adaptive reuse that until now seemed to have belonged entirely to the English. As a cocktail bar — well, it’s big. And loud. And monitored by a bouncer. And crowded, often with customers less concerned about the provenance of the absinthe in their frappes than with the taut buttocks of their temporary companions. (As is appropriate, but that’s for another story.)
But unlike other bars of its size, the Edison works hard to maintain its place in the cocktail firmament, and although you can probably get the Red Bull/vodka that would get you thrown out of most of the bars on this list, and the Scharffen Berger–based chocolate martini is fairly popular, the squad of bartenders, including Chris Ojeda late of Osteria Mozza, craft their own syrups and mixers, squeeze fresh juices, and mix remarkably detailed versions of classics like Death in the Afternoon, French 75 and Singapore Slings, even if they do take five times as much time to prepare as the 150th Cape Cod of the evening. The Edison’s leader and muse is local dude Marcos Tello, a student of cocktail history who formed the Sporting Life, a combination craft guild and secret society dedicated to the bartender’s art. 108 W. Second St., dwntwn., (213) 613-0000.
Hotel lounges are where you go to drink shots of Lagavulin, bathtub-size martinis and whatever pink thing has recently been featured on Lifetime — everybody knows that. Even if a finance guy or data-systems analyst happens to be passionate about champagne cocktails and old Armagnac, there is something about proximity to concierge desks and high-thread count sheets that makes the banality of Grey Goose and soda seem irresistibly seductive. But Fig, the new bistro from chef Ray Garcia in the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, may as well be connected to the farmers market by a pulsing, produce-filled umbilical cord. And its bar, whose drinks were designed by globetrotting British cocktailian (and perennial Hendrick’s Gin spokesperson) Charlotte Voisey, takes the seasonal organic thing to an extreme, flavoring cocktails with combinations like rhubarb and rosemary or fresh blueberries and thyme that sound closer to hip pie fillings than they do to intoxicating beverages, introducing fig jam to mojitos and lavender to English-cucumber coolers, and the inevitable elderflower to Spanish cava. Do these sound more like a prelude to an hour on the tennis courts than to a languid evening of love? Priorities are changing, I’m afraid, and not necessarily for the better. In the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, 101 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 319-1111.
With seafood, I tend to be a white-wine guy to the end, loyal to the marriage of Alsatian pinot gris and salmon, steadfast in the belief that oysters were created to be washed down with bitterly cold Muscadet. I probably visited Suzanne Goin’s wonderful fish restaurant 20 times before I even glanced at a cocktail list. But Matthew Eggleston’s bar is different from any bar in Los Angeles, lined with tin buckets piled high with farmers-market citrus, dotted with old-fashioned squeezers, staffed with bartenders who look way more like the people in your yoga class this morning than they do like life-weary mugs. If you squint a little, you could imagine yourself at the juice bar of a gym far grander than you can afford.
While a lot of good cocktails in Los Angeles tend toward juiciness — we may not have much in the way of locally made spirits, but the local citrus is the best in the world — Eggleston’s creations take the concept to an extreme, so that his Aviation, made with lemon and juniper-intensive Aviation gin, bursts with the bright freshness of Eureka lemons at the height of their season rather than the sweetly perfumed effects of maraschino and crème de violette, and his cucumber-based drinks sing with the pure, slightly musky perfume of the cucurbit. There must be a trick to his Proper Greyhound, which as far as I can tell is just vodka, grapefruit juice and ice, garnished with a jagged sliver of candied peel, but the buzzing intensity of the fruit makes it qualitatively a different experience from the cocktail most of us have been enjoying since we bought our first vodka with a borrowed ID. 1535 N. Vine St., Hollywood, (323) 462-2155.
MUSSO & FRANK GRILL
There may never have been an article on Los Angeles cocktail culture that hasn’t included the Musso & Frank Grill, and it’s not a tradition we’re about to break. Because if a restaurant was once forward-thinking enough to let William Faulkner hop behind the bar to mix his own mint juleps, the rest of us can do nothing but clutch our gin rickeys a little tighter in gratitude. For the past 50 years, the molecular structure of half the livers in Hollywood owes what little integrity it may still retain to the tiny flasks of gin martinis mixed by the maestro Manny Aguirre. 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 467-7788.
OSTERIA LA BUCA
La Buca has long been known in Hollywood as a place to drop by for a plate of squid-ink linguine or a slug of gnocchi, an unpretentious trattoria whose cooking is attributed to Mamma. When the restaurant expanded into a slightly grander space, Vincenzo Marianella, the peripatetic cocktail genius who has designed the drink menus at more bars than most of us have probably sloshed out of, took a crack at La Buca too. What this means is that you can get a proper spritz, the perennial Italian aperitif of Prosecco and bitter Aperol. And the annual return of the fizz made with muddled farmers-market strawberries and a touch of Campari is as eagerly awaited as the spring arrival of fresh strawberry doughnuts at Glendora’s fabled Donut Man. 5210 1/2 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, (323) 462 1900.
Even before it opened, Osteria Mozza was legendary for its extraordinary collection of amari, a fleet of bitter Italian digestive liqueurs, handsome bottles arranged on shelves that rise behind the bar up to the high ceiling, real great-grandfather stuff, mostly amassed by co-owner Joe Bastianich on his frequent trips to Italy. The rarer bottles didn’t tend to come with proper papers, so the restaurant can’t actually sell them — the array is a massive display of potential flavors, the way that locked-off library stacks are a display of potential knowledge. Some day a postdoc will write a proposal allowing her to scour the collection in the name of researching late-20th-century gentian use or something, and the syrupy aromas will dance again.
Osteria Mozza is yet another restaurant ruled by the antique virtues of Italian wine. But cocktails have always been taken seriously there, and when Bastianich lured Milk and Honey’s Eric Alperin out to Los Angeles to launch the drinks program, the bar quickly became known for things like his Campari-tinted tequila-grapefruit cocktail Sculaccione; the Meletti Smash, a quasi-Old Fashioned made with black rum, mint, Meletti bitters and lime; and the amaro-powered Montenegro Fizz. When Alperin left, Chris Ojeda took up the program before he left to go work at the Edison; these days Jeremiah Doherty is behind the stick, working out the resonances between Prosecco and amari with surgical precision. Will his antique, resinous fragrances, which in Italy are associated with randy old men, catch the Los Angeles imagination? In a way, they already have. 6602 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0100.
Among the best young chefs in the country, there are revolutionaries, many of whom spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to make hot ice cream or how to serve hard-boiled eggs with the yolk on the outside, and there are traditionalists, who aspire to recreate Bolzano or Lyon on a plate. Michael Cimarusti, the chef and proprietor of the seafood restaurant Providence in Los Angeles, is neither of these and somehow both, unafraid to introduce a smidge of gelling agent into a sauce when the alternative involves several hundred calories’ worth of butter and cream, but respectful of Los Angeles’ superb farmers-market produce, taking several dozen steps to create a seemingly simple dish of lobster and beets, but knowing when to let a crab taste like a crab. At Providence, an ingredient is rarely forced to do something it doesn’t want to do.
Cimarusti was also probably the first chef in Los Angeles to treat the bar as respectfully as he did his wine list or his cuisine. His seafood tasting menus always include a course or two matched to a cocktail instead of to a wine — I remember a plate of crab paired brilliantly with a cocktail made with sake, lychee liqueur and fresh tangerine juice — and it became almost a game in the restaurant to see what founding bartender Vincenzo Marianella would come up with when challenged to invent a drink to complement a specific dish. If a Los Angeles bartender ever merited the phrase “bar chef,” it was probably Marianella, who used all the tricks of the modern kitchen — the sous vide, the foams, the process that encapsulates liquid inside delicate sacs of gel — to prepare his cocktails and infusions at the restaurant. (One of Providence’s most notorious dishes is its tasting-menu course of “cocktails”: a mojito, a greyhound, and a gin and tonic willed into quivering alcoholic three-dimensionality.) The house style, which goes so well with Cimarusti’s cooking, generally calls for freshly squeezed juice, an assertive spirit, a spicy spirit and a crack of bitters — the drinks are balanced, cold and complex.
Zahra Bates, veteran of the London cocktail scene who currently presides over Providence’s intimate bar, has perhaps the oddest background of any bartender in town. While crisply shaking a Sazerac, she confessed that her father is from West Virginia, and her mother, who had been decorated as a young girl for her efforts running guns for the Moroccan independence movement, lives in a traditional Berber village near the Algerian border. (Bates grew up in Los Angeles and went to university in London, where she supported herself working at the Long Bar at the Sanderson hotel.) What do her relatives think of her career? “Oh, I dare not tell them,” she says, lowering her eyes. “When I return for visits, there is often a line of prospective suitors spilling into the street, no matter how often I tell my mom that my life is elsewhere. I do not think they’d understand.” 5955 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 460-4170.
The Cucumber Aperol Fizz at Riva is an especially nice beverage, the kind of complexly scented long drink you may associate with lazy afternoons by the Mediterranean, exactly the right thing to sip in a restaurant a hundred yards from the Pacific. Another cocktail, a Creamsicle-hued foam of apricot liqueur and jet-fuel-scented grappa bound with egg white, conjures a third, new taste, an illusion of bitter almond that seems to float a few inches above the glass. I probably should have guessed the drinks were designed by the Varnish’s Eric Alperin — he expresses the qualities of beaten egg whites almost on a molecular level — but didn’t until I was dumb enough to try to point him to what I thought was a great bar he may not have gotten around to yet. 312 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-7482.
John Sedlar, the godfather of modern Southwest cuisine, has decided to throw his lot in with the molecularists at his new Staples-adjacent restaurant, and the classical French techniques that underlaid his 1980s cooking have been supplemented with a heavy dose of Spanish chemistry-lab stuff. Where his cooking used to be seriously wine-friendly — his restaurant Bikini famously offered Chateau d’Yquem on tap — the tiny, highly flavored bites at Rivera, even the short-rib-stuffed tamales or snips of Serrano ham, lean more into the sweet-sour-bitter snap of Julian Cox’s well-made cocktails instead. A version of Jerry Thomas’ 150-year-old Martinez, sweetened with a hint of maraschino liqueur and herbaceous red Antica Carpano vermouth, tastes more like a primordial Manhattan than like the martini it classically evolved into; the proto-margarita called Rivera’s Cup is spiked with cucumber, and a Donaji, a potent mix of mescal, citrus and pomegranate, is served in a glass whose rim has been dipped in a blend of salt and ground dried grasshoppers. The quiet rear dining room of Rivera is lined with glowing bottles of the tequila custom-distilled for the restaurant, engraved with the names of Sedlar’s best customers. It’s like a Japanese bottle bar translated into Spanish. 1050 S. Flower St., dwntwn., (213) 749-1460.
Technically speaking, Rustic Canyon, the crowded Santa Monica restaurant whose lemon cornmeal cake and sustainable, humanely raised organic-lamb T-bones with baby artichokes make it one of the toughest reservations on the Westside, doesn’t even serve cocktails. It’s a wine bar. You drink Côtes du Rhône. It goes with the food. But Jon Hoeber, who serves as the bartender for want of a better term, does the sorts of things with Prosecco that other creative bartenders do with gin, flavoring it with lemongrass and ginger, mixing it with blood-orange juice and homemade bitters, or serving it on the rocks with salt, chile sauce and wedges of lime, which I can assure you is not how it is done in the Veneto. 1119 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393-7050.
Past the doorman on a busy downtown street, up the stairs, past a herd of deer skulls and vitrines filled with Makers Mark bottles tipped with drips of blood-red wax, Seven Grand is a yawning, loud, crowded big-city bar, separated from the street but somehow very much of it, packed with pool-playing lawyers and stubbly art guys, Fitzgeraldian USC students and women who breathe the twin-set look even when they’re wearing leather, office hardasses and visiting businessmen who can’t believe their luck — a pretty good cross-section of people who suspect salvation is sometimes found at the bottom of an empty bourbon glass. Seven Grand specializes in whiskey, and stocks about 125 kinds. Owner Cedd Moses claims that it sells more whiskey than any bar in California, and he may be right — you could look down the considerable length of the bar and not see a single Cosmo or vodka-soda. This is the land of the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned, the Rob Roy and the whiskey sour, prepared under the expert supervision of bartender John Coltharp. I have had an absolutely life-changing Manhattan here, almost meaty in its intensity, made properly with good Kentucky rye, a bracing dose of Angostura bitters and a dribble of Carpano Antica, which may be the only sweet vermouth you would ever contemplate sipping as wine. 515 W. Seventh St., downtown, (213) 614-0737.
Fifty years ago, every neighborhood in Los Angeles boasted at least one tiki bar, a 1930s Hollywood fad that exploded after World War II, slaking the tropical thirsts of men who had served in the Pacific — or at least entertaining their families while they sizzled their brains on industrial quantities of high-proof rum. Eric Alperin has a theory that the 1950s popularity of tiki bars had to do with what hadn’t yet been dubbed posttraumatic stress disorder, allowing the returned servicemen to reconstruct their war years in pleasant scenarios that didn’t happen to include screaming machine-gun nests. Carl Jung would have understood.
The most elaborate bars featured hula shows or giant volcanoes that erupted every hour, as well as drinks served in coconuts with yard-long straws, parasols and flaming croutons. But when I started going to the Tiki Ti in the early ’80s, it was already an anachronism, a tiny, high-quality tropical bar, open at odd hours, whose arcane assortment of rare rums and homemade syrups kept customers coming in even as places like the Islander, the Torches and even Don the Beachcomber — the first and most influential Hollywood tiki bar — closed by the dozens. But Ray Buhen, the bar’s late founder (his son and grandson still run it), was an unusually imaginative bartender, inventor of the classic Blood and Sand and an early advocate of the Zombie. It’s always been a sport among local drink aficionados to try and guess the identity of the intentionally mismarked bottles and unmarked flasks, to puzzle out the house formulas for the famous Missionary’s Downfall and Ray’s Mistake. It’s no use: The Tiki-Ti is irreproducible. You may as well relax, have a drink, and chant ooga-booga along with the rest of the mugs at the bar. 4427 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, (323) 669-9381.
In the back of a beefy sandwich shop, behind a shut door that looks more like the entrance to a broom closet than the portal to a secret alcoholic dreamworld, the Varnish is the kind of bar that appears to most people only in the throes of their DTs, a tiny, uncrowded room manned by a dream team of Los Angeles bartenders, a place where the Edison’s Marcos Tello or Hungry Cat’s Matthew Eggleston come to relax by making unhurried, classic drinks. The bar is a project of Sasha Petraske, whose bar Milk & Honey on New York’s Lower East Side is perhaps ground zero of modern cocktailianism; his former sidekick Eric Alperin, who ran the bar at Osteria Mozza, and Cedd Moses, of 7 Grand, Cole’s, the Doheny and probably too many other bars to name. It’s their attempt at an ultimate speakeasy-style cocktail bar. (There is no VIP list, but the Varnish is small: You should probably be prepared to wait a bit over a merely superb cocktail outside at Cole’s.) If you are in a mischievous mood, engage one of the bartenders on the subject of ice – block ice and cube ice, crushed ice and cracked ice, beveled ice and round ice and the ice that they personally are obligated to hew before service every evening – a conversation any one of them would be happy to continue until cock’s first crow. 118 E. Sixth St., dwntwn., (213) 662-9999.
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