It had been many years since I last went into Los Angeles specifically to go drinking at a bar. I honestly didn’t have a desire to make a special trip into the city for a few drinks when there is no shortage of watering holes locally. But after my recent mixology education and the resurgence of the downtown area following the addition of Staples Center, LA Live and other venues, I wanted to check out some big time old style places and find some bartenders who are truly masters of their craft. We weren’t going out for gin and tonics. I wanted to capture some of the flavor of Los Angeles’ history, while embracing the revitalized downtown establishments.
Leave it to our friends the Descombes to come up with a plan to tour some of the best bars in the city. A recent USC graduate who lives in the heart of downtown, Kristen Descombes had the experience and knowledge to lead the way. She and mom Susan did additional research, and narrowed the list to something manageable for us to try to tackle in one evening.
After Beth and I met up with Sus, Gordon, Kristen and Lauren at Kristen’s Apex apartment overlooking LA Live, we climbed into an SUV from the private driving service Uber, which took us to Hill Street and our first stop at Perch. Billed as “an elevated resting place,” the rooftop outdoor lounge provided the perfect view of the LA skyline at sunset, looking down on the ice rink in Pershing Square. French-inspired cocktails fill the drink menu, from which we all took our chances. Both Kristen and I had the Penicillin, a mix of Famous Grouse, lemon juice, agave nectar and ginger liquor. Sus and Lauren opted for champagne cocktails featuring St. Germain elderflower liqueur and Peche peach liqueur. I don’t remember what Gordon had.
We hit the streets and headed toward the Crocker Club, located in the basement of the old Crocker Bank on Spring and 5th Street. The club maintains the design of the 1920s, including the original bank vault. We arrived before the crowds, so after admiring the Ghost Bar and the private drinking areas that were once chamber rooms where bank customers examined the contents of their safe deposit boxes, we hit the road again toward Cole’s, originators of the French Dip sandwich. Housed in the Pacific Electric building on 6th Street, Cole’s has been a Los Angeles institution since 1908, and still has its original glass lighting, penny tile floors and a great collection of historic photos. Cole’s Red Car Trolley Bar offers a full menu of classic cocktails to go along with great French Dips. While all the others in the group ordered Moscow Mules, I was drawn to the “Draft” Old-Fashioned, a pre-mixed Old-Fashioned that had time to blend and age. Served over two-inch ice cubes hand cut from a crystal-clear ice block, the Cole’s Draft Old Fashioned is a must-have for all whiskey drinkers. Delicious.
About the time we wrapped up dinner, the door in the back of Cole’s was unlocked, leading to the Prohibition-style speakeasy called The Varnish. Rated as one of LA’s hottest bars (as were most of the others on our journey), the hideaway lounge is where bartenders are mixologists – meaning they are artists who take their craft seriously. Even the servers are astute in their comprehension of what goes into the cocktails at The Varnish. Our server, Gladys, inquired about our spirits of choice and what kinds of drinks we typically prefer, then offered her recommendations. Sus and Gordon each had a French 75; Lauren a Raspberry Vodka Fix; Kristin a vodka with mint, simple syrup and bitters; and I had a Pop Quiz, an Old-Fashioned-style cocktail made with bourbon, Ramazzotti liqueur, chocolate bitters and orange zest garnish. The bartender created a virgin drink for Beth that was delicious and looked and “felt” like a normal cocktail. Just watching the people behind the bar was entertainment as they carefully constructed beverages for the very discerning crowd.
We could have spent the rest of the evening at The Varnish, and it will definitely be a destination the next time, but it was time to move on with our journey, so we were back in the Uber car and headed toward the east side of town near to Villains Tavern. Located near the Los Angeles River, our ride took us past the city of tents that lined the sidewalks of Skid Row. Villains is an outdoor bar, partially covered by a circus tent, and as we enjoyed our final cocktail of the night and the band continued to set up for a late-night performance, we decided it was time to for our highly-anticipated visit to Seven Grand on 7th Street.
Unfortunately, by that time the place was packed and the first of our downtown drinking tours was complete, but not without a stroll down the street to Bottega Louie Restaurant and Gourmet Market on Grand for some colorful (and flavorful) macaroons for the road.