My recent obsession with the Showtime hit series Californication has inspired me in two ways. One, to write more. And two, get down to Los Angeles for some bar hoppin’! The first is a work in progress, but the second I achieved last week. I was lucky enough to trade a weekend of Northwest gloom for sunshine and cocktails during a mini-vacation to visit my sister in Orange County.
While the craft-cocktail bar has seen a resurgence over the last couple of years, Los Angeles was a bit late to the party and has had to play catch up with cities like New York and San Francisco. Despite the early hesitation, L.A. has finally unglued themeselves from the ‘Appletini 90’s’ and can now lay claim to bars such as The Varnish, Seven Grand and The Edison. All three have played a major role in bringing life to the once decaying L.A. cocktail scene. In a 2010 article from Imbibe magazine about L.A.’s cocktail rebirth, Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles blog said “change comes quickly in L.A., and while the city’s craft bars have been slow out of the starting gate, today there’s a cocktail renaissance underway that could make the City of Angels one of the world’s most exciting drinking cities.” We were determined to find some of this new energy.
After a glorious day at Universal Studios, our journey began on the downtown streets of L.A. Our first visit was to The Varnish. Tucked in the back of Cole’s restaurant (originators of the French Dip) lies this Prohibition-era, speakeasy style bar. Walking in, I had the sense I was going to interrupt a mobsters poker game. Luckily that wasn’t the case. Instead, the place was packed with happy drinkers. Dim lights and scratching jazz warmed the room. After settling in, it was time to drink! I was surprised by the limited number of cocktails on their menu, however they do offer a ‘bartender’s choice’ option which encourages the customer to give the bartender a base spirit or flavor profile and let them delight you with the rest (similar to how Seattle’s Needle and Thread operates). I stayed on the menu for my first cocktail and ordered the Adderley. A delicious rye based drink with marischino, lemon and bitters. For my second, I went bartender’s choice and ordered “something herbaceous with gin.” When the waitress left, I turned to my sister and her boyfriend and the first words out of my mouth were “I bet it will be the Last Word” – the ‘Emerald City’ cocktail made popular by iconic bartender Murray Stenson of Zig Zag Cafe. Sure enough, I called it! Although, instead of green chartreuse the bartender opted for yellow. A twist I had never tasted – well done!
Next on the itenerary was The Edison. Unfortunately, the line down the block and dress code requirements put a damper on our mood, so we headed back to the hotel bar and sipped a few overpriced cocktails while sharing our regrets about missing out on all the primitive mating rituals and awkward dance moves (talk about good times!). The next day, we headed to Hollywood. My sister had the bright idea of wanting to check out The Roosevelt Hotel because she had heard great things, plus it was a hot spot for celebrity sightings! We began snooping around in the middle of the afternoon. Within twenty minutes we spotted Colin Farrel, and stumbled upon an incredibly cool bar – The Spare Room. To our disbelief, this newly opened (January 5th) classic gaming parlor-style bar offers up vintage cocktails, custom-built backgammon tables and two reclaimed wooden bowling lanes. I felt like I should’ve been rubbing elbows with the Rat Pack. Plush leather sofas and tables with hidden compartments supplying dominoes and cards, we were lovin’ it! All of this, and the drinks were outstanding. I sipped an elegant Negroni as I watched a gentleman attempt to change the name of the place to ‘The Gutter Room.’ Equal parts gin, campari and sweet vermouth made the Negroni similar to my time at the spare room – bittersweet. It was short lived and I didnt get a chance to lace up the bowling shoes.
Giving a nod to a time that once was, The Varnish and The Spare Room are making L.A.’s drinking scene reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Classy joints, featuring bartenders who care about the craft keeping the cocktails flowing into the wee hours. If you’re headed to LA (or already there) you should definitely check them out, and let me know what you think!