It's a rare day that you can enjoy a drink in both a bookie bar and an ice cream factory — at the same time. In its previous incarnations, the Chestnut Club (from the folks behind Black Market Liquor Bar and Scopa Italian Roots) was both. In fact, the faded ice cream logo still haunts the bar back wall, a choice made by the owners to pay homage to the space's long-past life. These days, there are no floor shows, no themes, no obscure ingredients. Just an old-school bar with back-to-basics cocktails.
Opened in July, the Chestnut Club has taken over the space once occupied by Central and 14 Below and is quickly settling into its new role as a cornerstone of the burgeoning Santa Monica bar culture (Brilliantshine just opened nearby). With the bones of the old building still firmly in place, the old-school vibe at the Chestnut Club is a conscious choice: When you step inside, you forget that you're in Santa Monica, only blocks from the beach.
The dim glow of the 19th century–style lighting makes everyone look good. The zinc bar counter harkens back to the old bar styles. Both the high-top seats and the cordovan leather banquettes beckon those who want to stay a while. Most of all, though, the backlit, arch-framed shelves on the bar illuminate the spirits on offer as if in a shrine.
Co-owner Pablo Moix, who designed the drinks menu, has made his personal spirits preferences clear. Whiskey and tequila create a specific framework; Moix pulled plenty of cases of stored booze from his own backroom. These were bottles he'd been sitting on, just waiting to find a place to spotlight them.
The whiskey offerings range from Willet Rare Release Rye to the James E. Pepper 1776 15-Year Bourbon to an A.H. Hirsch at an extravagant $300 a glass (the other whiskeys are far more reasonably priced). In the tequila camp, you'll find an exclusive Del Maguey mezcal aged in Hudson whiskey bourbon barrels — it's not available anywhere else in town.
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On the cocktail spectrum, drinks are old-school and simple, letting the spirits shine through rather than burying them in multiple ingredients. The Blackberry Honey Sour features bourbon, blackberries, honey and lemon; the Weeski spotlights Irish whiskey, Lillet, Cointreau and orange bitters. In the long drink camp, try a Chestnut Cup, where gin and Campari are tamed by orgeat (an almond syrup). If stirred or shaken isn't your tipple, the bar offers a variety of gin-and-tonic permutations, including the Agua Caliente with serrano chile, as well as a nicely curated beer selection.
There aren't many bells and whistles at the Chestnut Club. Despite the line that often forms outside, the interior is a bastion of mellowness. People don't come here to party, necessarily, and they don't come here for the food, as there isn't any. The Chestnut Club is about the booze, whether in a cleanly crafted cocktail or showcased solo. Here, simplicity — and going back to basics — has its own appeal.
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, was released on July 29. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.