Los Angeles is not what you would call a bar town, and for all the obvious reasons. The region covers almost 5,000 square miles. While public transit does exist there — and taxis and Uber are thriving — it is not New York: If you stumble out of a bar on the way home, there’s not a subway on the corner.
But people adapt. And for good reason: There is a rich and interesting collection of places to go for a drink in Los Angeles, starting with the old Hollywood grande dames, with all their attendant glamour (or at least fumes of glamour). There are wine bars and beer bars, beach bars and hipster bars, and it seems that every new, beautiful restaurant is putting some thought into installing a place to sit and drink and maybe eat. And the thriving restaurant scene that has enlivened Los Angeles for 15 years has spilled over, as it were, into the cocktails: Mixologists have joined the ranks of chefs as mini-foodie-celebrities.
Here are just a few of my favorites. This is not a good place for a bar crawl, so pick a place and settle in.
From the street it looks like a hardware store on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, which it actually once was. Push your way through the front door, and you are met by a gathering of hosts in what appears to be a modest storefront. But the exploding assortment of fresh flowers behind the greeters is a giveaway, and around a corner, Laurel Hardware presents itself with a comforting glow of wood beams, seductive lighting, a maze of print wallpaper and, at the back, a wall of windows drawing your eye to a year-round outdoor garden (this is, after all, Los Angeles), with patrons eating and drinking under the Hollywood sky.
The primary call of Laurel Hardware is dinner, and you can eat at the bar if you choose; the food is wonderful. But it is a superb place to escape for a drink. A black marble bar juts out into the dining room at an obtuse angle, and while there are plenty of other places to sit, head right there — an easy place for a conversation and where there’s plenty to look at through the night. (One word of warning: Come on a weeknight unless you want to deal with the crushing singles crowd that slams the place during peak Friday night hours.)
A bartender greeted our group with a list of cocktails and a few suggestions. At the top of her list was the Gangster, made from — it is best just to quote from the menu here — “rain organic cucumber vodka, fresh juiced watermelon and lime.” It was stirred with a stick of cucumber and was like drinking a watermelon. Exhilarating. I had it again the next time I went back. The El Rey was a fireball, lit up by dash of habanero bitters added to Maestro Dobel tequila and Cointreau. You probably shouldn’t have more than one. The Veritas might have won our crowd: a summery explosion of fruit made with mandarin blossom vodka, prosecco and strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier.
Laurel Hardware establishes its bar bona fides with its beers on draft, including a fruity and boozy Delirium Tremens Belgian ale. And it had a respectable selection of wines by the glass — which at this point, one expects in Los Angeles — though I was a little distressed, after ordering a bottle of a balanced and fairly priced bottle of a Stephen Ross pinot noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands, to watch the bartender screw the cap back on the bottle after giving us a taste, depriving it of a chance to breathe.
7984 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood, 323-656-6070; laurelhardware.com.
“Do you want more fruit or less fruit? More acid or less acid?”
The questions are being posed by Matthew Kaner, the engaging wine manager and co-owner who was behind the bar at Covell, a seductive and studiously charming spot in Los Feliz, as we discuss my next glass of wine.
Covell is a wine and beer bar more to the east of Los Angeles. It glows with candles perched on low-flung wood tables and shelves along the wood walls, the hum of soft talking and well-curated music (TV on the Radio and the National were playing in something of a Brooklyn tribute one night I was there). There are eight beer taps on the wall, and the selection changes literally with the keg.
The wine-by-the-glass selection is as eclectic and interesting as any I have found in Los Angeles, but wine and beer are not the only point of this spot on Hollywood Boulevard. From the moment you walk off the street, Covell offers the embrace of a warm blanket, the kind of place you could easily come into for a single glass of wine and settle in for the night, picking away at a menu designed to make you enjoy your alcohol: an addictive croque-monsieur, a spicy mac and cheese, a selection of charcuterie.
There are fans on the ceiling, and shelves of wine bottles line the wall behind the black bar. Some of the daily selections are scrawled on vintage framed glass panes that hang from the ceiling, but if you have any interest in wine or beer, that might not be the best way to proceed here.
“Come to the bar and talk to Matthew,” Dustin Lancaster, the other co-owner, told me. “It’s part of the experience.”
At Mr. Kaner’s suggestion, I started with an Austrian lager, a Stiegl Goldbräu, followed by a sip of Ace Perry Cider, made from apple and pear. After I told him I’d prefer a wine with more fruit, he steered me to a glass of Gemischter Satz, a field blend from Vienna.
This is the east side, which tends to trend younger, hipper and toward facial hair for men. Mr. Kaner and the bartenders were dressed hipster formal: ties, untucked plaid shirts and jeans. The crowd, though, is diverse; at one point, a doctor in blue scrubs wandered in from Children’s Hospital across the street. (I assume that he was finished with his shift, rather than taking a break.) And it is the kind of place where everyone likes everyone and talks to everyone. A woman with ironed straight blond hair was seated at one end of the bar when we arrived, flutes of Champagne splayed out before her. She leaned over as she prepared to leave, handing us her bill and asking for help calculating the tip. “I’ve had a bit much to drink,” she said. Delighted.
4628 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-660-4400; barcovell.com.
The Tower Bar is at once intimate and sprawling, filling the maze of corners and hideaways on the first floor of the Sunset Tower Hotel. You don’t really go there for the drinks, though the bar offers a respectable list of house cocktails, or the restaurant, with its equally respectable menu. You go to the Tower Bar because it is the Tower Bar.
This is old Hollywood in all of its real (and hoped-for) glamour, an Art Deco warren with no end of places to sit and gawk. Start with the bar in the main room, with its warm wood fixtures, a jazz trio that makes you feel you just skipped 40 years back in time, and light so dim, by design, that you really aren’t sure if that is Jon Hamm in the corner. (It was.) The windows look out across the Los Angeles basin, glowing in the sun before sunset, lit up at night.
The atmosphere is set by Dmitri Dmitrov, the very charming maître d’hotel, who somehow manages to attend to all the needs of his eccentric and needy crowd, be they drinking, eating or making a deal. It is dark, of course, to protect the privacy of the Hollywood types who routinely eat there. The bartenders — who wear white dinner jackets and have the highest cheekbones you can imagine — present you with a tray of olives, peanuts and potato chips as you settle into a stool, along with a drink menu.
You can’t go wrong with the cucumber mojito, made with Hendrick’s gin, muddled cucumber and mint and fresh lime juice; it came clinking with a metal straw. I could not quite bring myself to order the drink named the Dimitri: It is made with vodka, gin, muddled Luxardo cherries and fresh lime. “It’s sweet like Dmitri,” the bartender told me. I settled for the Moscow Mule, a more traditional brew of vodka, lime and a bracing hit of fresh ginger.
The hotel is worth a second visit to check out the Terrace, the other bar by the pool, with an outdoor patio and even more expansive view of Los Angeles. This is where the Vanity Fair post-Oscar Party was held until this year. One tip: It’s worth calling ahead and reserving a table on the patio for a drink; it often fills up.
8358 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, 323-848-6677; sunsettowerhotel.com.
Vintage Enoteca is an unassuming wine bar, tucked into a storefront on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard (up the street from the sprawling Guitar Center) that is as known for rock ‘n’ roll as it is for drinking. It is, with all its lack of pretense and industrial design, the opposite of the Tower Bar: The art on the wall includes a vintage black-and-white photo of Astroland in Coney Island. Here, too, you will find an eclectic and changing assortment of wines, a list that is likely to include offers from Germany, Austria, France, Italy and New Zealand as well a boutique wine from Santa Barbara. If the Tower Bar has Dmitri, Vintage Enoteca has Danielle Francois and Jennifer Moore, the owners, and one (or both) are almost always present to nudge you to try some wine you haven’t explored before, or just to sit and talk for a while. The other night, Danielle let us try an assortment of white wines before settling on two. And if not by the glass, they will often open up a bottle for you and sit down and talk about wine — or the latest development in this history-heavy part of Los Angeles. Or you can just enjoy the random if gorgeous view of the tip of the brown Hollywood Hills that you can catch out the window.
There are two places to sit here. If you choose inside, climb up on one of the high chairs and sit at one of the tables where you can gaze, graze and drink your way through the night. The sound level here is always tolerable, though it can get a bit loud if there’s a big crowd.
On a nice evening — in other words, about 320 nights a year in this part of the world — I prefer the front porch, with its view over goings-on on Sunset Boulevard and, if it’s still light, those on the very near horizon. There is a counter right on the sidewalk, giving you the best view, though you might be better off settling into one of the comfortable couches just off the street. The food is designed to complement the wine: deviled eggs topped with caviar; an assortment of bruschetta topped, the night we were there, with blue crab, hummus and chicken liver; and a sparkling and citrus Niçoise salad made with salmon instead of tuna. Vintage Enoteca is the kind of place you can relax into for a glass (or two) of wine and a snack, or just park yourself for the night.
7554 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, 323-512-5278; vintageenoteca.com.
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