Mandrake is a cozy, wood-paneled shoebox of an art hang that feels a little like a small cabin at the top of a mountain where hikers can go rest. It even has cocktail tables made out of tree trunks and footage of crackling fireplace flames projected on the large wall of the backroom. On a recent chilly night, the art crowd looked like weary but hip hikers sharing stories about their climb as they sat cupping wine in their hands and keeping warm in their smart coats, stylish scarves and horn-rimmed glasses.

For them, Mandrake, close to Culver City’s ever-growing gallery scene, is a respite. A place to escape the throngs of art lookie-loos, the free wine in plastic cups and the brightly lit meat-market vibe that opening receptions can bring. It’s possible to hit six art shows, then pop into the Mandrake, recharge with some tapas, cheese, wine, olives and a stiff drink, then head out to half a dozen more in a single night. But should your gallery-hopping stamina weaken, you’ll feel no pain being left behind at the Mandrake. There’s a coveted back garden, where the owners grow herbs to use in their cocktails — like a Greyhound with a sprig of fresh rosemary. The large room in the back sometimes displays art, and there’s a DJ booth, but a sign above it reads, “No Dancing.” Ollie, a chick with two pigtailed braids, tells me the sign is a joke: “Actually, it’s a piece of art,” she corrects herself. “We like to be subversive while we dance here.” Ollie smiles a devilish grin. Truth is, the bar doesn’t have a cabaret license, but co-owner Drew Heitzler says, “There’s something kind of funny about a room that is clearly meant as a dance space, with a sign that says ‘No Dancing.’ I love when people ignore it.”

Heitzler, his wife, Flora Wiegmann, and friend Justin Beal bought the space two years ago. They’re all NYC transplants. Heitzler, an art-house filmmaker, and Wiegmann, a dancer, had just started a gallery of sorts back in New York, carving out a space in their loft where they curated 21 shows. When Wiegmann was accepted by UCLA grad school, the couple moved and took their gallery with them. They paired with Beal, a Yale architecture grad, who renovated the interior. After 25 years of various décors — a gay leather bar, an Irish pub — Beal tore everything out of the bar and started fresh. The idea was to make the place, appropriately, “like a frame for things to happen in,” explains Heitzler. “The place doesn’t inform what happens here like it does in themed bars, the people do.”

Meanwhile, Mandrake has become a sort of Cheers-like home base for local artists, gallery owners, art tarts, collectors and those who are looking to score with one of those types of people. See, there’s also an intellectual singles-bar feel to the Mandrake, a Regal- Beagle-meets-LACMA vibe, but it offers a different setting for the pickup artists you usually spot in galleries. Here, it’s possible to hook up without stalking your prey and summoning the nerve to try some clever line. Plus, the lighting, the wine and the music are a helluva lot better. The witty remarks are still up to you.

Mandrake, 2692 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, (310) 837-3297. Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 2 p.m.-mid., Fri.-Sat., 2 p.m.-1 a.m. Tecates $3, cocktails $15, wine $7, food ?$7-$10.

LA Weekly