Los Angeles may well be ground zero for the let's-meet-for-a-drink cocktail culture, what with all the aspiring Sammy Glicks running around. And the city is crammed with bars and restaurants that cater to them, most of which have the plastic, glossy newness of a TCA chemical face peel. For the rest of us, getting together for a drink is less likely to be about a transaction than it is about a conversation (if not a seduction). And for occasions like these, something a little more soulful is really called for.
Of course, any of the usual suspects serving wines by the glass and small plates will do. But also consider the following five restaurants, each of which manages to transform the simple ritual of a cocktail into a full blown, capital E, Experience. Yes, they all serve food, but it's really beside the point. Whether gorgeous or garish, these are spots that fill you up on ambiance; that are so transporting they can make ordering even a draft beer feel, somehow, like something bigger. Turn the page for our Top 5 Just-For-Drinks Restaurants.
Picture The Aquarium of the Pacific crossed with Disneyland's enchanted Tiki hut and you've got a decent mental snapshot of Bahooka. No, the live fish in the restaurant's eye-boggling one hundred and six tanks won't serenade you about life in the Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki room. But the staff of this family-run business–a deliriously decorated space crammed with plastic parrots, suspended wooden boats, and every imaginable kind of goofy Polynesian paraphernalia–is so affable that you get the sense that they just might belt out a tune for you, if asked. Consume even a small fraction of one of their enormous cocktails for two (the rum, coke, and apricot nectar concoction called a Honey Bowl is surprisingly drinkable… for a flaming salad bowl.) and there's a good chance you'll be doing some singing, yourself. Bahooka Family Restaurant: 5401 N. Rosemead Blvd., Rosemead; 626-285-1241.
2. The Prince Cafe:
The Prince is like old, eccentric royalty–regal, but also just a tad off its rocker. Chalk it up to the charming dissonance of being a Korean restaurant housed in an Anglophilic, Royal Tenenbaums-esque space (rumored to be largely untouched since its original incarnation as The Windsor restaurant in the 1920s). Oddities abound: The bowl that accompanies your gratis tortilla chips, for instance, will probably contain a single teaspoon of salsa, a portion more suited to the 2 foot-tall British gentlemen on the restaurant's ceramic lamps than any actual humans present. But somehow, these quirks only add to its appeal. Knock back a Glenfidditch, order up a snack of the Korean-style fried chicken that can be found every table, and lean back in the dim light against your red banquette. All hail the Prince. The Prince Cafe: 3198 ½ W. 7th St., Los Angeles; 213-389-2007.
Yes, Yamashiro is the place you bring out-of-towners. But it's touristy fun that locals can still enjoy getting trapped in. A replica of a mansion overlooking Japan's Yamashiro basin, the 96 year old estate is a little like visiting Tokyo's Edo Outdoor Architectural Museum but with Skittles-colored (and to our palate, sadly, often flavored) signature cocktails. The restaurant has upped its profile since the introduction of Thursday night farmer's markets, which go on hiatus this month for Oktoberfest-ivities. The better bet, however, may be a quieter night of the week, when you can peacefully nurse your Otokoyama as the sun sets over the city, spread out before you. Yamashiro: 1999 N. Sycamore Ave., Los Angeles; 323-466-5125.
4. Valley Inn Restaurant & Bar:
Much to the disappointment of travelers and overly optimistic second dates alike, there is no Inn at the Valley Inn. “I have literally had people pulling up in taxis with their luggage,” says owner Sophia Brodetsky, who is contemplating changing the name of the landmark steakhouse for that very reason. But you've come here to drink, not to sleep, and the Valley Inn a remarkable place to do it. Some of the barkeeps have been pouring here for nearly a quarter of a century, and the mahogany bar itself has been around much longer–it was brought to San Pedro by clipper ship back in the 1800s. Details like carved pillars and swinging stain glass doors steep the tiny (about the size of one of those non-existent hotel rooms), saloon with a cozy sense of warmth and history. In the shadow of the Valley's shopping mall behemoth, The Galleria, that's saying a lot. Valley Inn & Restaurant: 4557 Sherman Oaks Ave., Sherman Oaks. 818-784-1163.
Downtown Los Angeles is not lacking for drinks spots with spectacular vistas–most notably, the rooftop scene at The Standard, and '80s throwback The Bona Vista Lounge, which rotates 360 degrees atop the Westin Bonaventure. But the prettiest view downtown may be overlooking the bougainvillea-surrounded pool outside The Hotel Figueroa's Lobby Cafe, where Moroccan tile tables flicker with candles, and the richly colored tents hang with glowing glass lanterns. The Staples Center across the street feels a thousand — actually, more like 6,000 — miles away. The Hotel Figueroa: 939 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles; 213-627-8971.