Barman Aidan Demarest has managed some of the best cocktail bars in town, opening up downtown's whiskey bar Seven Grand and the Hollywood Roosevelt's bowling alley/lounge Spare Room, while also introducing a unique guest bartending program to the Edison and First & Hope.
After years of jumping from one bar to the next — a condition exacerbated by his cocktail consultation company Liquid Assets with partner, Marcos Tello — Demarest is finally settling down in his own little drinking hole, Neat, located in Glendale, in the former Side Bar space. The 3,500-square-foot venue's old Moroccan theme will be stripped away and made over by Alexis Readinger at Preen Design. Its bar program will simply focus on, not cocktails, but spirits, 250 bottles' worth.
Squid Ink: What was it about this Glendale location that made you want to finally open up your own place?
Aidan Demarest: I walked in the room and it felt like a winner. I knew I could do something with it. Even then I was thinking what could I do for this guy [Side Bar's owner]. He was throwing it at me as a bar for sale and I had investors in the past approach me about “When are you going to open a bar?” On a lark, I looked at the space and I discussed doing some consulting and helping him to sell it, talking about a concept idea and I started kicking around some concepts for him. I left that meeting and the bar was sticking with me and the area and the challenge that Glendale would be. And I have given a lot of lip service to the Valley and the suburbs as being some place to head to.
So it was just the right feel. It was cheap because the bar is not doing well. It had gone its course. It's in the middle of nowhere as far as I'm concerned. But the bones of the bar are such a classic bar. A long bar in a black room, rock front. It couldn't be any more simple. I've never worked in that demographic. I don't even know who goes out in that area.
SI: You've never gone to Side Bar before?
AD: Never. I've only set foot in it three times before I bought it. But I've sat at the bar and had a drink the first time I went over and met the guy and I could have sat there all night. And I didn't like the drinks and I didn't like the crowd but I could have sat there all night because the bar had a good feeling. And it's a size I know I can do. I've actually said, over and over again, “If I got a bar, I don't want a tiny little speakeasy but I also don't want a nightclub, especially for my own first bar.” It happened super quickly and the concept “Neat” resonated with me.
I certainly have an interest in great spirits and making great drinks, but I have no interest in creating a Milk & Honey [New York] in Glendale. I don't think the area is ready for it. But I think they ARE ready to think about what they're drinking. And that's all we're going to do. We're just going to make people think about what they're really drinking because the spirit is going to be separated from the…it's a deconstructed cocktail. It's going to be a drink and that whole drink [gestures to my Moscow Mule] would come but your vodka would be on the side and you'd pour it in.
SI: Wait, what?
AD: So one glass would be the mixers like ginger beer, lime… and this is your vodka and that's it. So it's going to be all neat spirits, is the bottom line. It won't be a complicated cocktail program. It'll be all the things you can make with sugar, sour or soda.
SI: So are you going to have any specialty cocktails?
AD: No. It's a bar. It's a spirit bar. It's really a spirit SAMPLING bar. Everything's going to come separately. Obviously you can get a ginger beer and some lime in a glass with ice. They're going to come on little pallets. So the drinks are going to come with a shot and then the glass of ice and then the mixers. Nobody's going to be doing their own muddling. Obviously there wouldn't be a Sazerac. I'm not going to have martini glasses. They'll all be rocks glasses. There will be no stemware.
SI: What are the people who like Cosmos and Red Bull and Vodka going to do when they show up at your bar?
AD: They're just going to have to go to the Americana. I've got vodka and a glass of cranberry in it if you wanna do it that way. No, you won't be able to get a Cosmo. But you would be able to get a Jack and Coke. It's all going to be bottle, soda and they're all going to be served with the drink. Like in Europe.
Sangrita sort of inspired the whole concept because I really love the fact that you can try the tequila first and then take a sip of that flavor and if you want you can throw them together in a glass. Or you can sip and sip and sip and sip. I started playing with the sangrita at Spare Room and I just love the interaction it'd have. It creates conversation, it makes people think about liquor and I think we've talked enough about drinks. Don't you? I mean, I have. I've talked enough about every kind of cocktail, every flavor, every spice. Egg, no egg. Bacon. Let's talk about some booze.
SI: So no infusions?
AD: Not on a night-to-night basis, no. I'll probably get a barrel of something or two. The most exciting part for me because I farm out most of the cocktail work… once I come up with concept I give it off to Naomi [Schimek at the Spare Room] or Marcos. But I always have a strong, strong hand in the brands and the spirits. So it's really coming back to what I do and eliminating the rest. What I do is pick what spirits we're going to have and say, “Use this and make that. Now go crazy.”
SI: You're big with the guest bartender program. Are you going to do that?
AD: I'm going to do that more. Because that's when I'm going to do cocktails, on the guest bartender nights, the special nights when they'll be industry nights. I'll have the guest bartender send me their list. Erick Castro will be guest bartending for Plymouth Gin on my opening night October 7. And then Marcos. I'm going to bring everybody out. Misty [Kalkofen of Drink] from Boston. Everyone from in town. It's my place, I don't have to carve out a date, figure out when it can happen. I would say it's going to be more than an L.A. permanent home of Red Rover [Demarest's traveling guest bartending program]. Once a month, you'll be able to get some amazing cocktails featuring the spirits that are back there and then normally it's just going to be simple drinks and beers. Which is all the bar can handle on a regular basis. On the guest nights I'll bring in some different glassware and set it up like a private event.
SI: Are you nervous about your first time as a proprietor?
AD: I've never had to worry about the bottom line. I had the freedom to sort of dance on the bar because I didn't have to wake up in the morning and worry if the taxes got paid so I got to be “Woo hoo!” Which I think made me a little bit more daring that's why the bar programs that I did have been a little bit more outside the box. Because I wasn't risking my own livelihood to a certain extent. There's definitely more concern with this concept than any other I've ever done. So locking myself into Neat right away at first felt confining, like oh is that going to fly for everyone? But I've learned from experience as well, unapologetically picked a team, or a concept and went for it… Spare Room, it's such a concept, if you don't pick one and you try to stay open to everything, you're kind of wishy-washy.
SI: So Side Bar's downfall is that it's located in an out-of-the-way area, how would you draw people to that location if that's where that bar failed?
AD: For Glendale, for me, my thought process is to bring in exciting, informational, interesting and a little bit of a focus on education with Neat to that area. And I think that there's going to be a lot of people that are like “I've been hearing a lot about what's going on downtown but I would never go there but I wanna know what's up with this rye?” The bartenders and myself will be able to teach them that, like walk 'em through Reposado tequila. I'm interested in getting Glendale to go there. I'm not looking to bring Hollywood or downtown to Glendale. I want Joe Schmo four blocks down to fall in love with rye whiskey because he drinks at my bar and then start going downtown and doing other places.
SI: Tell us about what you're doing with Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills.
AD: They don't have a bar program. They have a really simple bar program. They recognize this is not going away. There's just few successful restaurants and bars in town that opened in the last few years that didn't have a cocktail program. Five years ago you didn't need to have a rock star bartender. You could open up with a couple of apple martinis and a great menu and kill it. You know all the oldies but goodies are getting on board, which is good for my business.
We're going to work on the bar itself and train. Marcos and I don't ever just put a drink list somewhere. It has to be a complete change. And they have to be willing to train the staff for 90 days. There's lots of people who roll in and do a drink list with a brand or whatever and train the bartenders for two Saturdays and then it opens up. We don't do that and we won't put our name on that. Which is why we only do one or two a year. We can't do five. Marcos lives in there with those guys for like two weeks solid, 40 hours a week.
SI: What are you doing for Kate Mantilini in concept?
AD: We have ideas on the table but nothing we all agreed on. We're not moving in there until November 1 to even start. So what we do is we load in, assess, present an idea, like First & Hope and also 1886, we go in and present. “Based on your menu, based on your clientele, based on the look of this room, this is who you are. And this is who we think you should be.” But then like an ad agency we present two or three. Like, “You're a tequila bar, it's going to be all long stem glasses and big, beautiful, coupes..” Then we teach all the staff 75 classic cocktails — Sazeracs, Bee's Knees… Either that or get people who already know that. And there's a test at the end, if they don't pass it they don't have a job.
I don't care if you're in a successful place like Kate Mantilini, you're still building a brand-new bar. We're cheap compared to what it would cost to build a bar. And it adds value, even a very successful place like Kate Mantilini which kills 25 years later, guarantees it will be there another 25 years because they're thinking outside the box and they're staying relevant.
Demarest's last day at the Spare Room will be October 5 and bartender Naomi Schimek will take over as beverage director while Micah Paloff, former general manager at Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge, will be general manager. Neat opens its doors to the public on October 8. Neat, 1114 N Pacific Avenue, Glendale, California 91202.