Do many restaurants these days seem to feature crab cakes, steak tartare and deviled eggs? Is the age of shrimp Louie and braised pigs’ ears still upon us? Are the kinds of places that used to hire DJs and burly doormen now hiring Aperol-happy bartenders instead?
Still, even in this era of codified nostalgia, where the young dudes with Barneys credit cards flock to dine the way they imagine their grandparents might have in the years after the war, The Tar Pit, Mark Peel’s new food-intensive lounge, still feels revolutionary, if only because it marks the first time since perhaps the 1940s that a major new restaurant was built around cocktails instead of wine. Next door to Cube and just a block from Pink’s, the Tar Pit, named in honor of the nearby La Brea Tar Pits, is a dark, vaguely moderne chamber of mirrors and subdued earth tones dominated by a long, gleaming bar. Even during the Saturday night rush, it’s quiet enough to converse.
There are two styles of good cocktail bars in town at the moment: the first centers around recipe, and the second around execution. As you might expect from a bar opened by a chef, the Tar Pit is the former, based around formulas dug up and polished by Audrey Saunders, whose work at New York’s Pegu Club put her at the vanguard of the cocktailian movement a decade ago. Her neoclassic approach to drinks like the Trident, which is basically a Negroni made with the artichoke-based aperitif Cynar instead of the customary Campari, and the Jamaican Firefly, more or less a Dark and Stormy with Jamaican rum instead of the Bermudian product, is rooted in the La Dolce Vita school of drinking.
A well-made cocktail can be a chef’s best friend, and while Peel’s menu is heavy on Mad Men–era classics like lobster Newberg, steak Diane and coq au vin, his heart seems to be in the reinvented bar snacks: fried oysters tucked back into their shells with a glop of remoulade, pickled deviled eggs showered with minced Smithfield ham, and an odd version of clams casino that manages to split the difference between the Italian-American standard and clams on the half shell.
In an odd twist, each of the 30-odd wines on the Tar Pit list is priced at $38. Peel claims that the strategy lets his customers concentrate on what they feel like drinking instead of wasting their time on calculating cost-benefit ratios — and after a Flame of Love martini or two, the idea starts to make sense.
The Tar Pit: 609 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. (323) 965-1300, tarpitbar.com. Open nightly, 5 p.m.–2 a.m.