As bartender at the Copper Still since 2012, Nancy Kwon has watched the roughly 3-square-miles of L.A.'s Koreatown evolve from mostly throw-back 1940s-era bars that only served soju and Hite to a vibrant, reinvented restaurant and cocktail scene. What many people don't know, she was quick to point out, is that the food and drink boom is incredibly contained.
Over the course of an afternoon and early evening, Kwon took us on a bar crawl of some of the best spots. The locations listed below – two within blocks of one another on Western, two within easy walking distance on Sixth, and two on their own – not only blend Korean, Latino and retro drinks culture, but also make for an easy and entertaining, albeit inebriating, tour of the new K-Town scene. We've listed them alphabetically, but the order of your day's entertainment is up to you.]
6. Beer Belly
Anyone who drinks beer in this town knows about this hops heaven – which looks less like a bar and more like an urban art studio, replete with graffiti-ed exterior. Beer Belly just celebrated its three-year anniversary so it's not exactly the new kid on the block, but the fact that a beer bar-restaurant is flourishing in Koreatown says something about the evolution of the community. Hipsters and young locals gather to sip artisan beers like the El Segundo Double IPA and the Smog City bourbon barrel-aged brew (watch out for this chocolate-y, monster brew; it will dull your plate for cocktails.) To prime you for the rest of your bar crawl, sample one or more of the artery-clogging delights on offer, including fried chicken, grilled cheese, and duck fat fries. 532 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles; 213-387-2337.
Biergarten owner Ann Kwon went to Germany to suss out the local scene and recreate it to some degree back home. Located a few blocks south of Beer Belly, it's a nice one-two punch of hoppy goodness. As Koreatown's first craft beer bar, the 'Garten deserves special recognition as one of the spots that kickstarted the K-town food and drink revolution. Kwon, who steps into the kitchen whenever the restaurant is short-staffed, has created a menu that includes German fried rice, Korean fried chicken and French toast – and kimchee galore. Along with over 20 artisan beers on tap, there is sake, soju and wine. 206 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles; 323-466-4860.[
4. The Copper Still
A heavy, brocade curtain separates the Copper Still from Jaragua, the Salvadoran restaurant in which it's surreptitiously located. As the only pre-Prohibition style cocktail bar in Koreatown, the Copper Still encapsulates the changes that K-Town is experiencing. Beverage director (and our tour guide) Nancy Kwon arrived in 2012, revamping the lackluster cocktail program and building a following for her classically crafted drinks. Among her original cocktails are the Sage Advice, featuring St George's Terroir gin and Art in the Age Sage “garden gin; and the Rum Tum Yum, a riff on the flavors of tom yum soup, using rum, coconut liqueur, Thai bitters, dried lemon grass, dried thai chile and lime.
If it seems odd that a classic cocktail joint would cozy up with Central American cooking, it's not as strange as it sounds. Not only has there been an enthusiastic influx of Latinos into K-Town, but Kwon also notes that food and drink go hand in hand in the Korean culture. “It's a complete senses thing,” she explains. “In Koreatown, it has to go together.” 4493 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-661-1985.
In this elbow-to-elbow, white leather and cherrywood space, oysters and seafood share the stage with craft cocktails. With its eager bartenders and wide selection of classics, EMC clearly wants to establish itself as a serious cocktail bar. To that end, drinks reflect familiar stalwarts (a Moscow mule and a whiskey flip), as well as a barrel-aged Old Fashioned and a Penicillin, one of the cocktail kingdom's modern marvels. EMC draws a cross-section of locals and other Eastsiders eager to sample everything from $1 Happy hour oysters to the house-named “Hello Kitty” sangria on tap. 3500 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, 213-351-9988.[
A quick two-block walk from EMC is Chapman Plaza, where you'll find Escala, a breezy slice of Latino decor and food. Located in the former Bohemian restaurant-bar space, Escala is a contrast to its predescesor on every level. Late afternoon found a laconic crowd, some lounging at the bar, others hunched in booths digging into the Nuevo Latino fare, which includes mostly small bites, such as guacamole with pork rind and street corn. The tequila, pisco and rum cocktails incorporate ingredients like aguardiente, jalapeno, tajin and guanabana (aka soursop, which tastes a bit like strawberry meets banana with citrus notes), as well as lots of tropical fruit juices. Recently bartender Matthew Biancianello did a guest stint making pisco cocktails. 3451 W. 6th St., Los Angeles; 213-387-1113.
1. POT Bar
POT Bar, part of Roy Choi's latest venture and located off to the side of the main lobby of the Line hotel, is a contradiction in terms, with the original menu designed by local wunderkind Matt Biancianello, Bodega bar snacks and little boxes of toys on the counter. The drinks combine K-Town tradition (the Soju Curry includes curry-infused soju with cabernet wine, pickling liquid, lime and agave) with a 21st century drinks sensibility (the Celery is a blend of mezcal, lime, celery and lemongrass-infused agave, vermouth, tonic and a chipotle-salt topper). And to help you before or after, stop in at Choi's POT restaurant, which is conveniently located behind a very close doorway. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; 213-381-7411.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book Gin: A Global History. Her book The 12 Bottle Bar co-written with David Solmonson, will be released August 2014. Email her at email@example.com.