Back Downtown


Up until recently, the idea of walking around downtown Los Angeles was not appealing. It was an area to avoid. There have always been landmark hotels and high-rise office buildings, but it was not the kind of city that inspired a stroll around the block. I used to relish going to the LA Times building, but the decline of the newspaper industry changed the dynamics and exhilaration of the old-time newsroom. And, in part because of the preponderance of homeless people and “questionable” characters, and mostly because there truly were no desirable dining, shopping or entertainment venues that would inspire me (or pretty much anyone else I know) to go there, I didn’t consider downtown Los Angeles to be a destination of choice.

That’s all changed.  In the years that have followed the opening of Staples Center and the addition of L.A. Live, Los Angeles has truly undergone a renaissance. In the past few months since we’ve made this enlightening discovery, walking around downtown L.A. has become one of my favorite things to do.

IMG_5875I’ve chronicled past visits to some downtown hotspots, and I will continue to do so as we uncover more great places to visit in the future. Every trip results in new discoveries – none more revealing than the city’s prodigious history, as evidenced through the spectacular Art Deco architecture found on structures stacked along Grand, Broadway, Olive, Spring, Main and other streets, and the numbered boulevards that intersect perpendicularly. Lighting is strung overhead up and down the block throughout the financial district, and great new or rejuvenated restaurants and bars emerge among the side-by-side storefronts along the avenues of what has once again re-emerged as one of America’s great cities – and nirvana for “foodies.” Even people I meet who work downtown are amazed at the revitalization they’ve seen transpire right before their eyes.IMG_0835

Not long after our Los Angeles journey, I walked the streets of the Gaslamp Quarter of San Diego – the city’s downtown dining, entertainment and urban shopping district – and I frequently visit Old Pasadena. I’m amazed at how revitalization efforts have made these and other downtown sections “can’t miss” destinations. It’s evident even in my longtime hometown of Claremont, which is now alive day and night, which is a huge departure from the days when the downtown shut down at sunset.

IMG_0834Our most recent outing to Los Angeles was fueled by a celebration of Susan Descombes’ birthday. We started at the rooftop bar at The Standard on Flower at Sixth. The route to the top took us past dozens of ping pong tables and then a rooftop “Bier Garten” before we settled near the top floor outdoor pool deck and outdoor “waterbed pods” for a round of refreshing bourbon lemonades, Moscow Mules and champagne cocktails with St. Germain elderflower liqueur.

Next stop was dinner at Bar Ama’, home of puffy tacos (not on the menu) and a “bon appetite” magazine national “Top 50 New Restaurant Nominee” for 2013. Our guide Gordon Descombes was masterful in selecting an assortment of dishes for starters, while each of us picked out a specialty cocktail. Lenny Seligman and I opted for the Snake’s Blood and the La Moda Vieja (both are whiskey-based). Kristen also had a Snakes Blood, while Susan had a Vodka variation of the same cocktail. Jeannie Stoll and Beth each had a vodka based lemonade drink, while I recall that Gordon went with tequila.IMG_0831IMG_0833

After a fabulous dinner, we walked to our new favorite spot, The Varnish, hidden inside the French Dip institution Coles on Sixth at Main. It’s really hard to top this place, and I had a great opportunity to chat with mixologist Jason for a bit while he manufactured a few masterpieces. In the times I’ve been there, I’ve admired the way the artists behind the bar crafted their concoctions, and truly appreciate the care they give to each cocktail. I watched intently as Jason cracked hand-cut ice cubes into a Manhattan and stirred vigorously to increase the dilution. It was obvious he was a master craftsman and a graduate of the Bar Smarts program (he confirmed). To me, that is the ultimate achievement in his profession. I don’t believe that because I graduated from the online version of the class (he did the real thing), but because I understand the tremendous level of painstaking dedication and expertise that Jason and others have gone through to achieve their professional goals. Those people are good.IMG_0838

Aside from Jason’s vast knowledge of mixing cocktails, the mixologists and servers at The Varnish have a unique talent. The menu includes an item called “Bartender’s Choice,” in which the server quizzes guests about their drink preferences (spirit of choice, along with drink qualities, such as whether it is refreshing, fruity, spicy or other qualities). Jeannie’s answers returned a “Bitter Bee” drink. Sus was served a Moscow Mule and Gordon a “Flora Dora.” I had a Pop Quiz and Len stuck with an Old Fashioned. Kristen Descombes and Beth had other specialties as they stood at the bar deep in conversation (and neither one known for having a shortage of words).

While there were still places to explore, the best part of the evening was complete. We stopped for some L.A.-brewed craft beers at the Golden Gopher, and then called it a night…until the next time we go walking in L.A.IMG_0837


Liquorama, Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center Foundation and Claremont Toyota Team to Benefit Hospital’s Neonatal and Pediatric Units

PVHMC Wine-Tasting-2014

Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center Foundation and John Solomon, noted wine expert and owner of Liquorama Fine Wines and Spirits in Upland, will host the 10th Annual Wine Tasting event on Friday, May 9, at the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel and Conference Center in Pomona. This year’s event is presented by Claremont Toyota.

Solomon spends months in preparation for the annual wine tasting, personally working with wineries, importers and distributors to select wines from their respective cellars for the event, which has become the Inland Empire “can’t miss” wine tasting.111025 PVHMC Inv_r1-1

“Liquorama is honored to partner with Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center Foundation to support its outstanding care for newborns and infants in its neonatal intensive care and pediatric units,” Solomon said. “We are passionate about and committed to helping the hospital raise funds to benefit its most vulnerable patients.”

Proceeds from the event will be used to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for PVHMC’s neonatal intensive care and pediatric units

More than 230 wines will be available to sample, including selections from Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Caymus, Cline, Far Niente, Flora Springs, Moët & Chandon, Pine Ridge, Silver Oak, Stags Leap and many more. There also will be food, music and silent and live auctions, with open bidding on more than 150 unique items.

Tickets are $100 per person ($125 at the door), of which $50 may qualify as a charitable deduction.

To RSVP and for more information, contact Glenda Ferguson at (909) 865-9139 or


Cole’s and The Varnish, Revisited

All it took was one trip to Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and the speakeasy bar The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles to know we would soon return. So when Beth and I joined Susan, Gordon and Kristen DesCombes in February to celebrate Kristen’s birthday, we knew our journey into LA would not be without an encore visit. IMG_0809

It was just after Christmas that our group, along with Lauren DesCombes, dropped by Cole’s for French Dip sandwiches, only to find our way into the back-room Varnish speakeasy bar – two of the top cocktail bars in LA.

After several stops around town to start the evening, we headed down to Sixth Street to Cole’s, minus Kristen, who had an early morning ahead. A Los Angeles institution since 1908, Cole’s claims to have originated the French Dip sandwich (Philippe’s, which also opened in LA in 1908, makes the same claim). Cole’s was founded on the ground floor of the old Pacific Electric Railway Building and is the oldest restaurant and bar in downtown LA. Through the years, it has seen its share of famous and infamous patrons, including 1940s-era gangster Mickey Cohen.

It was getting fairly late, and the restaurant’s rush period was already past. The front section and bar were still open, but the side room was already empty and dark. At the back end, the inconspicuous door to the hidden lounge remained unlocked. Inside The Varnish, more great old jazz and blues filled the air as our waiter quizzed us for our beverage preferences. The best thing about The Varnish is that you don’t need to order a specific cocktail, but simply let the waiter know the kind of drink you like. The wait staff and artists behind the bar then collaborate to create something special. Merely state your spirit of choice, as well as the style of beverage you favor (refreshing, heavy, sweet, etc.), and moments later you have a cocktail customized to your liking. Susan ended up with an Eastside, featuring vodka, lime, cucumber and mint. Gordon’s drink was the La Paloma – a mixture of tequila, lime, grapefruit and soda in a glass rimmed with sea salt. Beth had a virgin Raspberry Fix with muddled raspberries, lemon and soda water (regularly mixed with vodka). I enjoyed a Peacock – a blend of Cognac, Amaro ChiCiaro liqueur, sugar, Absinthe and garnished with a lemon peel. Very nice.

IMG_0812The speakeasy of the Prohibition era gave customers a back-room retreat where they could secretly enjoy their favorite beverages and other activities away from eye of the law (or perhaps along with the local peace officers). While more of a novel theme for today’s bars to pay tribute to “The Noble Experiment” of 1920-1933, the quiet and hospitable environment found at the speakeasy of today is very appealing and enjoyable.

As we examined the lounge, we realized we were the last customers in the house. It was time to quaff our final sips. We had exhausted our capacity for mid-week adventures, so Beth and I headed back to Upland. We agreed that it won’t be long before we head downtown again in search of more great cocktails and bars, and with more friends in tow to relish the experience.

(Note: we have already made plans for another visit to Coles and The Varnish in the days ahead)

Now You See It, Now You Don’t


The combination of creativity in mixology and the recent re-birth of classic cocktails has elevated the spirits trade to new levels that I’ve not seen in my lifetime. The bartending profession has grown up rapidly from recent generations, when bartenders banged out drinks in rapid-fire succession. The craft of mixing cocktails has definitely changed since then, with establishments making their beverage presentations a priority, with fresh ingredients, quality spirits and complex recipes, rather than only offering concoctions filled with “house” liquors, pre-mixed packaged mixers (like sweet-and-sour mix) or soda from the fountain. Sure, those drinks remain popular today, because that’s what so many of us grew up drinking (and because they are easier to order and quicker to mix – and they aren’t THAT bad).IMG_0816


Today’s emphasis on excellence is bringing unprecedented success and popularity to top-quality drinking establishments. Many are capitalizing on inspired themes, including a number that have brought backdrinking’s golden age of the pre-Prohibition era, when bartenders were the center of attention at popular restaurants and bars, much like chefs at many of today’s restaurants. Bartenders who were masters of their craft held near-celebrity status.

There are a number of top-notch bars in downtown Los Angeles showcasing mixologists at the top of their game. So as a sequel to our December expedition to downtown watering holes, Beth and I joined Susan, Gordon and Kristen DesCombes and Kristen’s friend Zach Timm in another quest to find some of LA’s hidden whiskey bars.IMG_0808

Our first destination was the Seven Grand whiskey bar on Seventh at Grand (yeah, that location was easy to figure out). One of the trendiest and most-talked-about bars in Los Angeles, Seven Grand was packed the last time we dropped by. But a reasonably early evening visit in the middle of the week made this trip much more relaxing and afforded us a spot at the bar. We were treated to an up-close view of the awe-inspiring whiskey wall, in which the bartenders need a library-style rolling ladder to reach the upper levels.IMG_0797

As I took the last sips of my carefully crafted Old Fashioned, I went in search of a new speakeasy that was allegedly located somewhere in the building. Sure enough, the door to the Bar Jackal

ope was along the hallway leading to the restrooms. After reading the instructions on how to enter, we rang the bell and were greeted by Pedro Shanahan, the spirit guide for the new sipping lounge and tasting library located in the dimly lit back room. Pedro said the secret room had only been open a couple of weeks, so we felt privileged to be among the first to experience the truly top-shelf whiskeys not found in most bars.

If you’re not into sipping straight whiskey, Bar Jackalope serves only three cocktails – Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Japanese Whisky Highballs – all crafted with hand-carved ice. The point is to sip personally selected amazing whiskey with tableside hospitality. The strategically lit shelves of a whiskey “locker” cover one of the walls, where customers keep their personal bottles of prized spirits under lock-and-key, ready for their return visit. Off to the side, a phonograph-style record player pipes out 1920s jazz and blues, and a door to the patio area gives guests the opportunity to slip out for a cigar. A book-cart filled with volumes about whiskeys separates the “whiskey library,” allowing only small groups to occupy each table in the 18-person capacity chamber. In fact, the rules on the door allow only parties of five or less, meaning our group was divided in half and spent the visit on opposite sides of the cozy quarters (albeit less than 10 feet apart).

IMG_0798A look at the whiskey menu demands a second glance. Several different Pappy Van Winkle bourbons stood out, but I still couldn’t bring myself to sample the expensive hard-to-find bourbon, despite the fact that this might be the only time I’d have the chance. I’ve seen reports indicating a single bottle of Pappy Van Winkle goes for hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars, depending on the age of the bourbon.


Instead, Pedro suggested the 2013 Four Roses Limited Edition Single Barrel bourbon, of which one of his regulars claimed is the best bourbon he has tasted. It blew me away. The 12-year-old bourbon was very rich and smooth, boasting notes of vanilla and caramel. Pedro advised sticking with single barrels and recommended Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit Single Barrel, a 101-proof bourbon that was complex but not nearly as rich as the Four Roses sample. I thought I was done for the night, but Kristen passed along the rest of her glass of Old Forester 2013 Birthday bourbon, which was full, bold and filled my mouth with wonderful flavors. Lucky for me, she had an early morning ahead.

Pedro and the Seven Grand Whiskey Society also host monthly tastings, designed for all levels of experience. While we weren’t part of that during our visit, Pedro was an excellent guide through the journey of high-end spirits that we sampled.