The holidays bring plenty of opportunities to sample adult beverages. We’ve got your guide to the Inland Empire’s beer and wine events during December at IEShineOn.com. We’ll cover New Year’s Eve in an upcoming post. Cheers!
While the weather outside still says summer, the calendar shows we’re on the cusp of fall and the transition to some cooler temperatures ahead. And with the change of seasons comes a shift in the types of cocktails that are most appealing. Specifically, that means a transition from light refreshing drinks, to those that feature dark distilled liquor. There’s no better place to start than with a couple of classic whiskey cocktails – the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned – along with a few other variations. I’ve got my take on a couple of my favorites at IEShineOn.com. These are heavy on the alcohol, so, as always, please be careful and drink responsibly.
Prohibition era-style speakeasies are once again returning to prominence, except now they are legal. While Los Angeles and other major cities around the nation have their share of these hidden bars, there has yet to be one surface in the Inland Empire — unless it’s so secret that I haven’t heard about it. The closest thing to a speakeasy now operates in the Claremont Village. To find out where it is and what makes it special, read my story on IEShineOn.
Happy hour at a local establishment was a ritual when we were much younger. Back then it was all about finding discounted drinks, having fun and not worrying about all the responsibilities that would come in the years that followed. Over time, priorities changed and the idea of early-evening cocktails in the middle of the week was simply not as desirable or practical. Most of the time school and sporting events made that kind of recreational activity impossible.
In addition, with society dictating a much more responsible approach to social drinking, many establishments cut back or eliminated their happy hour promotions.
Now, fast-forward to today, when the kids are away at college and our own commitments have turned another page. Early evening get-togethers with friends are again manageable and much more enjoyable.
So where do we go? There are plenty of local restaurants and bars to enjoy refreshments at the end of the day, but how many offer happy hour specials, much less an appealing ambiance?
In our recent return to the occasional mid-week outing, we’ve returned to one of the Inland Empire’s oldest institutions – The Sycamore Inn in Rancho Cucamonga. A legendary local landmark, the Sycamore Inn has long been known as one of the region’s finest quality prime steakhouses. While the food is delicious and service extraordinary, dinner prices can be on the high side for those watching their budgets. Not so with the Sycamore Inn’s happy hour bar menus.
Owners Linda and Chuck Keagle have found a way to bring back the early evening crowd and offer value at the historic restaurant’s bar and patio areas. “Prime Time at the Wine Bar” runs seven days a week from 4:30 until 8 p.m., with a special bar-side meal menu. The Sycamore offers half-price on appetizers, wines by the glass and martinis and mixed drinks, including those featuring top-shelf spirits.
Chuck and Linda have always presented an impressive collection of outstanding wines, serving as longtime judges at the prestigious Los Angeles International Wine Competition at Fairplex. The bar serves carefully crafted classic cocktails in an environment reminiscent of the Sycamore Inn’s long and glorious history that dates to the mid 1800s. I’ve enjoyed a number of classic cocktails there, including the Rye Manhattan made with straight rye whiskey, Carpano Antica Vermouth, bitters and a “drunken” Maraschino cherry (probably Luxardo and not the neon red version); the Sycamore Manhattan with Knob Creek Bourbon, Carpano Antica Vermouth, bitters and a good cherry; and the “Slow and Low Old Fashioned, featuring Hochstadter’s orange and honey rye whiskey, muddled fresh orange and a Maraschino cherry. You can also order an Old Fashioned with your whiskey of choice. All were crafted expertly and left we wanting another.
Among the bar menu appetizers worth sampling are the Cajun shrimp, stuffed mushrooms, house flat bread and ahi tuna poke (but ask for some dipping sauce on the side).
Although not a part of the history chronicled on the restaurant’s web pages, locals say it served as a bordello along the main stagecoach route between San Bernardino and Los Angeles along old Route 66. The upstairs dining and meeting rooms give foundation to those stories. The building survived fires, floods and reconstruction before the foundation for the current Sycamore Inn was built in 1920.
The architecture lends itself to the perfect setting for a speakeasy bar setting in one of the upstairs rooms or perhaps the basement. Not sure if that will ever come to be, but given today’s increased interest in classic cocktails and drinks that are mixed with care and fresh, quality ingredients, then the time just might be right for our own local speakeasy.
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.
I’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.
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.
Our 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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)