If you want to get to know the history of a city, eat its food. If you want to get to know the heart of a city, go to its bars. Cocktail fever is a global phenomenon, and the ever evolving drinkscape of a city will give you great insight into where it is heading. This is where culture and flavor intersect to showcase a city’s creative pulse.
When setting out on any adventure of imbibement discovery, the bars I seek out and love are the ones that seem like a special experience for all the senses. Of utmost importance is the creative nuance that goes into the cocktail program itself, but the other major swayers are the overall aesthetic and design. They say you eat first with your eyes, and this fully applies to how we drink as well. We drink in the space, we drink in the presentation, and then we drink in the cocktail. When all three systems simultaneous “hit,” we mentally fire on all cylinders, and this feeling is well, inexplicable. Perfection.
Of course, many spots fall short in excelling in all areas. It’s quite disappointing to have high expectations for a place but realize everything went into luring you in with instagrammable corners while what should have been the main-event, the cocktails themselves, are merely an afterthought. This is where we separate the champions from the hype. At many places, I’ve fallen in love with their aesthetic, but if that first sip is in any way a let down, then there is just no way that I could feel comfortable recommending that spot.
That being said, these are just a few of the places that are definitely hitting for me right now in buzzy Downtown LA. So take a sip, and drink it all in.
History and Revival
Downtown Los Angeles sprang to grandeur as the epitome of glamour in the mid 1920’s. Majestic buildings were erected, each unique and awe-inspiring with their worldly deco styles. A bustling financial hub, oozing with culture and demanding a nightlife to follow, Downtown LA was the bee’s knees for the prohibition party-set. Sounds of jazz music and crystal glasses clinking reverberate through my head at the mere glimpse of photos showcasing the heyday of this art-chitecture.
Sadly, the later half of the 20th century saw this area gradually morph into a desolate historic graveyard. Gorgeous buildings became parking lots, elaborate storage spaces, and places to generally be avoided at night.
Today the renaissance is upon us, and Downtown LA is in the throws of an energetic and aesthetic rejuvenation. Historic buildings and hotels are being restored to original grandeur, abandoned warehouses are being transformed into mind-bending art spaces, and the whole area has been injected with a powerful bolt of artistic electricity that’s seeing extremely curated visions come to life where space and craft meet. Nightlife here is exciting and enticing, and people are flocking.
Downtown has become a playground for the most skilled mixologists (yes, I said it, because that’s truly what they are), and chefs to explore their wildest dreams and concepts. All of a sudden I have a Santa-length list of establishments to check out, each boasting an impressive backing of talent to provide top quality bites and sips. And in the end, that is what I’m after. The best sip. The sip that makes me immediately giddy in body and ignites synapses in my brain. While my Santa-style list continues to grow, the places that beckon me to return and gush to friends about are the ones that make my “nice list” right now.
Where to Drink
Birds and Bees – The perfect balance of kitsch and craft. You won’t think you are heading in the right direction to find this place when you walk through a parking lot towards thumping club music. But ignore those instincts. When you see the set of industrial stairs that look like they are not for public access, they are. Then you’ll find yourself in a small, outdoor, concrete corridor, and you still won’t be sure that you’ve gone in the right direction. But you have.
Once you find the door, a surprisingly large and lively mid-century modern space complete with bright orange sunken couches, suspended fireplaces, video projection, and a tasteful dose of hollywood-tiki flare await you. Unlike most speakeasies, geared towards small intimate spaces, this creates more of a spacious communal meeting place. it seeks to invite people to settle in for the evening, invite friends, and meet new ones. It’s as if Tiki itself moved to Hollywood in the 1950’s and went mod.
Birds and Bees playful vibe is fully revealed once you get ahold of their menu, which is almost a vintage magazine. Nostalgia drawings of 50’s era hula girls greet you on the cover and inside classic Hollywood actors and neighborhoods each have their own artfully crafted, well balanced tiki personality. Such retro perfection is achieved thanks to bar manager and master mixologist Jake Larowe and his many combinations of distinct liquor infusions, tinctures, bitters, and even food accompaniments, which are made in-house. Something I always admire in any bar.
What to Order: For one of the most out-there concoctions, try the Elvis Presley, a mix of Peanut Infused Bourbon, Fresh Berry Gomme, Lemon, Licor 43, Elderflower and Allspice. It even comes with a delicious snack – it’s served with a slice of homemade banana bread.
In Sheep’s Clothing – A hi-fi speakeasy lounge in a Japanese-sushi bar’s clothing, without a wolf’s snarl. One aspect of speakeasies that can be off-putting to people is their need to project an air of too-cool for you. This place is so genuinely cool that they have no need to project any attitude. Hidden inside the impressively delicious Lupetti Pizzeria, but not difficult to find, is the respite of In Sheep’s Clothing. There’s no sceney scene to get in at the unmarked door and the only thing they ask is that you use your phone minimally. But prompting people to actually be present while inside instead of staring down at little metal boxes can hardly be considered a negative.
The vibe is traditional Japanese sushi bar meets luxury 70’s New York apartment with a killer vinyl collection as its focal point. Instead of serving sushi, fresh cut Japanese whiskies and a few spirit forward but inventive cocktails are on offer. Visually, walking into a space like this is a completely refreshing experience. The highly curated musical program enhances the already deliberate scene. This is a place where the cocktail menu must be as precise as the record collection and sound system in order to complete the vision, especially because your bartender will also double as your DJ most nights. Providing a space to lounge, listen, and drink with intention was owner Brian Ling’s (No Name Bar) goal and after enlisting the help of music supervisor Zach Cowie (Master of None, Forever), it is perfectly executed. You will probably walk out with a little additional musical knowledge too. Bonus!
What to Order: Know ahead of time that most cocktails are spirit forward (read: strong). I tend to ask for the bartender’s “dealer’s choice” and am yet to be disappointed. However, a popular drink on their menu is the Forbidden Colors: Tori whiskey, Amaro Sfumato, grapefruit, oolong, and tonic. Explore the extensive whiskey and sake offerings as well.
Duello – Quality, detail, artistry, and history you can taste. Sometimes you walk into a place and you instantly know that whoever put this place together really knows their stuff. In this case it’s Ian McPherson who has already achieved fame and success with his Scotland-based bar Panda & Sons. Smack in the middle of the arts district is the well-appointed cocktail bar that serves as the entrance to the revered restaurant Simone. This is a place that is all smoke and mirrors, literally, which is why I love it!
Art deco to a T, built with the highest quality materials, the history of Downtown Los Angeles comes alive as soon as you walk through the door and into this living painting. This breathtaking glimpse into the past is met with a cocktail menu that provokes and dazzles just as much as the decor. With a storybook menu designed to take you on a libation (and actual) journey through the art district’s varied past, every offering has its own unique personality and presentation.
Ingredients range from fresh and vibrant to classic or obscure, and rich and powerful or aromatic and delicate. You will be completely tantalized by how these ingredients come together and fascinated that they were even brought together in the first place. All your senses will be tickled here and that’s BEFORE even exploring the pairing options. Since I did not get a chance to do so, I am eagerly anticipating my next visit.
What to Order: The New Order: Mezcal, pandan, clarified milk punch, blanco tequila & palo santo smoke. When a cocktail is served in a large smoke-filled glass cloche, it’s impossible not to take notice. Artistry and flavor come together with this boldly presented yet well-balanced cocktail. Warning: you must be a lover of smokiness to enjoy!
Whatever your palate, the spirited downtown LA scene awaits, so sip away!
Alexandra comes from a background in production that spans various hit television series like The Cleveland Show and Project Runway to websites including CNBC.com. Growing up around New York City, she was exposed to cuisines from all corners of the world. It was these experiences that inspired her insatiable love for travel and adventure. She now lives in California, where she is immersed in both wine country’s as well as Los Angeles’s food and beverage culture. Combining the yin of her media expertise with the yang of her epicurean appetite, her role at Wine4Food.com is the ultimate synthesis of her professional and personal worlds.