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barrett_woodhaven Mar 11, 2010 08:21 AM

Need some help here Chow-downers!

I am looking for the best cocktails and mixologists in Hollywood / Downtown. However - looking for the up and comers who bring classic style to the bar ... I have been to the usuals: The Hungry Cat, Seven Grand, The Bar, Comme Ca ... etc. Whose changing the game out there?

Please send some recommendations!

Thanks!

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  1. mollyomormon Mar 11, 2010 08:32 AM

    I'm not sure what this caveat means: "However - looking for the up and comers who bring classic style to the bar ..." but I'll add Rivera, the Roger Room, the Tar Pit, and the Varnish.

    2 Replies
    1. re: mollyomormon
      b
      barrett_woodhaven Mar 11, 2010 08:48 AM

      hey thanks!

      I was talking about new bars that are turning out classic cocktails with a bit of an updated/modern twist .... sorry for the confusion ;)

      1. re: barrett_woodhaven
        mollyomormon Mar 11, 2010 10:16 AM

        okay, I thought that's probably what you were saying, just wasn't sure. I think all the ones I listed would be very good options, then. I know District in Hollywood is not too far from opening and they're supposedly planning to have an excellent cocktail program as well.

    2. w
      will47 Mar 11, 2010 05:57 PM

      You know, I've been to a lot of the places that people mention, but I haven't yet seen better drinks with more consistency than The Varnish. I have only been there on an off night once, and even their worst night was better than many place's best night. I don't know about changing the game (nor is that really what I'm looking for), but they are solid, and devote the time needed to make a drink right. The drinks on their actual menu are usually riffs on classics, and they can make pretty much any classic drink you can think up well. The ingredients are right, the preparation is right, the ice / dilution are right. I think the only way you will get a better drink in LA is to make it yourself. The main downside is that it's not really somewhere you can easily go with a large group most of the time.

      I thought Tar Pit was pretty decent. Even though the place was packed, the bartenders seemed to take their time -- still not as good as Varnish IMHO, and I think it may have been a little more expensive. Have not tried the Edison, but (even though it's large) have heard good things about their drinks. Haven't been to 7 Grand in a while, but the drinks I've had there were solid; the down side is that it can be a bit of a zoo.

      I went to Hungry Cat once, and I don't think it was in the league of these other places, based on that experience, at least. The ice was wet, the drink a bit too sweet, and the bartending a little sloppy. Maybe some good ideas on their drink menu, but that doesn't matter if they're not executed well, and consistently.

      6 Replies
      1. re: will47
        w
        will47 Mar 22, 2010 06:10 PM

        Went to Roger Room the other night, and while it was a bit of a zoo on a weekend evening, was very impressed with Jason Bran, who's apparently formerly of Celadon, who was our bartender for the evening. Even though the staff free-pours many of their drinks, it didn't seem to adversely affect the quality of the drinks I tried. Their ice looked pretty dry, and the dilution of the drinks seemed right to me, and both classic and modern drinks were mixed properly. Even better, I felt the bartender managed to quickly get a sense of our individual preferences. Definitely hoping to go back on a quieter night.

        Some of the stuff seemed a little gimicky; the plastic monkey garnish holders, the use of an atomizer to spray on bitters, etc., and they even did a little "spraypainting" (using a stencil) with bitters on the foam of one of their sours. Also, I would have preferred if they let fewer people in, so that it's a little quieter, but I'm glad they still seemed to keep the quality of their drinks up.

        Despite the suspenders etc. on the folks behind the bar, the ambience is a little more like a standard bar than some of the other wannabe-speakeasy bars. This is both good and bad... it's less pretentious, but I'm old enough that I tend to prefer places that are just a little bit quieter. The crowd was a little meat-markety, but not horrible - good people-watching at any rate.

        1. re: will47
          mollyomormon Mar 22, 2010 06:22 PM

          I, too, wish it were quieter at the Roger Room. The bartenders are excellent, and I'd go way more often if it wasn't such a scene.

          1. re: will47
            w
            will47 May 24, 2010 11:26 AM

            A little further west than the OP was asking about, but we recently saw a post about The Tasting Kitchen (on Abbot Kinney), and had a chance to check it out last night.
            http://eatdrinknbmerry.blogspot.com/2...

            The bartender mentioned in that post wasn't there, but Devin Espinosa (who also curates the Hatchi Mix series at Breadbar) was tending bar, and I thought he did a great job. Drinks were excellent, both the classics and their own creations. They make a lot of their own drams, bitters, and garnishes (we were happy to see that the cherries are house-made rather than the Luxardo ones), and have a fairly good collection of spirits.

            I would like to visit a few more times, but based on this experience, it's definitely one of the best places on the west side, and worth a visit even for those of us closer to DTLA / Hollywood.

            1. re: will47
              c
              cacio e pepe May 25, 2010 05:52 AM

              The Tasting Kitchen is the only place on the Westside that hits the highs that The Varnish regular operates at, and in some cases exceed it. There is a sense of adventure and creativity that I don't find tapped into quite as much at The Varnish.

              Case in point, Justin (who seems to be the creative force behind the bar) mixed me an excellent spin on a Red Hook using some housemade mamajuana in lieu of the maraschino. Pretty amazing results.

              My first visit to The Tasting Kitchen, I asked Justin to mix me something that would be a cocktail pairing for a dessert which I've since forgotten the details of, other than it focused on strawberries. What he came up with was an extemporaneous hit playing off a strawberry liqueur with depth provided by some Amaro Nonino.

              And to me that illustrated the niche that Justin has carved out for the Bar at The Tasking Kitchen -- exploration of various amaros in cocktails. For a relatively small bar, he's built up a very interesting collection of these behind the stick and he's willing to use it in really interesting, yet balanced ways.

              Try the Four Square next time you're there. It's like a bizarro world Last Word. Equal parts bourbon, campari, dry vermouth, Amaro Cio Ciara.

              And if the OP hasn't yet been to La Descarga, on Western between Koreatown and Los Feliz, then do so post haste. Focus on rum, naturally, which is often a bit of a thin spot at The Varnish and The Tasting Kitchen.

              -----
              La Descarga
              1159 North Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90006

          2. re: will47
            westsidegal Mar 22, 2010 07:34 PM

            re: the hungry cat
            although it gets a lot of love on this board, to my palate all the drinks that i tried there would have benefited by halving the amount of sugar they used.

            1. re: will47
              Indirect Heat May 29, 2010 11:05 PM

              Hit the Varnish tonight. It was lovely. Cocktails were spot on. Well-balanced concoctions.

              Hit the X-bar in our hotel (Hyatt Regency in Beverly Hills) last night. While they advertised artisanal cocktails (yeah, I should have known better) - they were appalling. One drink went largely untouched, the other wasn't worth half what we paid for it.

            2. c
              carter Mar 22, 2010 07:14 PM

              You might want to check into Joshua Lurie's blog, linked here, which discusses drinks, mixology, and all the venues that specialize in which ones.
              This link mentions those in downtown LA that are operated by Cedd Moses. Each has a different speciality.
              Cannot imagine you can't find at least one or two of interest.
              http://www.foodgps.com/qa-with-barten...

              1. J.L. Mar 22, 2010 08:44 PM

                Really impressed with Rivera's mixology...

                1 Reply
                1. re: J.L.
                  c
                  cacio e pepe May 25, 2010 05:53 AM

                  Agreed. Strong second.

                2. rednyellow Mar 22, 2010 09:36 PM

                  I usually drink my booze straight up but St. Felix makes some pretty fancy drinks. One of their bartenders recently competed in a mixologist contest and did well.

                  1. j
                    jaykayen May 24, 2010 12:19 PM

                    The Edison.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: jaykayen
                      l
                      LeS2Ki May 28, 2010 07:49 PM

                      Agree. My favorite bar in DTLA. English Afterthought and Southside Fizz are my favorites at this place. Also, whenever they have their Radio Room night, you get to try drinks made by other renown bartenders.

                    2. honkman May 25, 2010 12:54 AM

                      I heard that the Library Bar at the Hollywood Roosevelt is good. Does anybody has more information ?

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: honkman
                        c
                        cacio e pepe May 25, 2010 05:59 AM

                        I can confirm this. I will say the guy (sorry, no time to look up his name right now) veers toward some pretty precious techniques (emu egg vessels, absinthe foams for sazeracs), but often to excellent results so who am I to criticize. It's worth a looksie.

                        1. re: cacio e pepe
                          honkman May 31, 2010 06:41 PM

                          Went yesterday for the first time to the Library Bar and were very impressed with some of the best cocktails we had so far in LA. No cocktail menu just the bartender asking us what kind of cocktail we had in mind. We just mentioned some general ideas and he came up with the unique creation of the fly and we had three very creative, market-driven, well balanced cocktails - one was strawberry/jalapeno based, one cucumber/tomato derived and the last one lime/dandelion based. On the same level as some of the cocktail we had at Providence.

                      2. peppermonkey May 25, 2010 10:31 AM

                        Cocktails will vary based on who's making them of course
                        Vincenzo at Copa d'oro is just the best (in Santa Monica)
                        Julian at Rivera
                        Joel at Cana Rum Bar
                        Joe at Edison
                        Hungry Cat and Comme Ca are not the same since Matty and Joel left. 7 grand and Varnish are a little pretentious sometimes. Tar pit was great but everyone left. I'd say that Vincenzo and Julian win on creativity.

                        -----
                        The Hungry Cat
                        1535 Vine St, Los Angeles, CA 90028

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: peppermonkey
                          w
                          will47 May 25, 2010 02:13 PM

                          I have heard great things about Vincenzo Marianella, but based on my one experience at Copa D'Oro, I wasn't super blown away. To be fair, it was during happy hour ($5 drinks) -- but we did order at least one full-price drink off menu as well. His ice was a little wet wet, he was shaking / stirring cocktails and then using the same ice, rather than straining over new ice, etc. etc. The $5 Manhattan was a great $5 Manhattan, but not equal to a $13 Manhattan at some of the other places mentioned in this thread.

                          I know from reading an interview that he is big into creating balanced cocktails, so maybe we just have different taste, but to me, the drinks weren't perfectly balanced. He free-poured more than he measured (though he did taste before serving), and while I don't doubt that some people can pull off free-pouring pretty accurately, the resulting drinks were good, but not (IMHO) up to the standard of somewhere like Varnish.

                          What do you find pretentious about Varnish (aside from the bartenders' outfits and the pseudo-speakeasy conceit)? I have generally found the staff there to be pretty helpful and unpretentious.

                          -----
                          Copa D'Oro
                          217 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA 90401

                          1. re: will47
                            peppermonkey May 26, 2010 11:52 PM

                            happy hour drinks while being a great value are not the same league as those that Vincenzo has created. I actually think his drinks are more balanced than anyone else although he is not using a jigger. I find a lot of cocktails to be too aggressive on the sour or the sweet especially with california fruit. Sometimes the jigger guys don't take into account the strength of the vegetables or fruit that day. At varnish I just feel the bartenders are more about being mixologists than bartenders. A little snooty if there are some in your party that want vodka or something. Part of being a bartender IMO is about the people skills.

                            1. re: peppermonkey
                              w
                              will47 May 27, 2010 12:17 AM

                              Well again, I did try at least one of their menu items, which I believe was one of his creations. It didn't taste balanced to me, but it's possible that it was balanced to him, and just wasn't to my taste.

                              Funny that you mention that about the snootyness -- I actually had to order a semi-embarrassing drink for a friend at the Varnish the other night (directly from the bartender, who happened to be Marcos Tello), and he didn't even blink an eye. I tried a sip of the drink, and it tasted great.

                              I've had other experiences there where people we were there with asked for "something with vodka", and while there was some eyebrow-raising, it wasn't from the staff....the waitstaff there have generally been pretty cheerful about suggesting something appropriate, and the person always ends up enjoying the drink. They usually have at least a couple of sweeter drinks made with white spirits on the cocktail menu.

                              But since it's mostly table service there, and the bartenders tend to be busy making drinks, you do usually get less direct interaction. The other downside of that is that the bartender is less likely to get an idea of what kind of things you like, or to be able to tailor a drink to your taste.

                              I don't think that measuring exempts you from also tasting the drink to make sure it's balanced, or from taking into account variations like the ones you mentioned, or even the strength of the particular spirit being used, or wetness of the ice. And I have absolutely seen bartenders who can free-pour a drink and have it come out perfectly. But I am still usually a little bit reassured when I see someone taking the time to mix a drink slowly and deliberately, and I can think of plenty of seasoned professionals who still measure everything out.

                              Interestingly, I went to a couple of bars in Tokyo recently, and the bartenders there neither measure nor taste the drink before serving it. We asked about it, and one of the apprentices (who spoke a little English) said that they don't measure or taste the drink in front of customers, because the customers might think they're not competent or confident enough. Of course, bartenders at high-end places there have to apprentice for quite a while before they can mix drinks for customers; I still prefer the more humble approach, though.

                          2. re: peppermonkey
                            w
                            will47 May 25, 2010 06:44 PM

                            One other thing on this... while it's always great when you have the opportunity to have a really exceptional bartender make your drink personally, I think that a lot of the craft bars in the US which *consistently* make good drinks focus more on training their staff well -- making sure they take the time to measure, to ask for help or look up a recipe, and to taste the drink before serving it. This means that, even if your bartender tonight isn't famous, and isn't the person who runs the place's cocktail program, with years of experience, you can expect that your drink will be prepared properly and taste good, whether you order a classic or one of the bar's signature drinks. That's not to say that the same drink will taste exactly the same when mixed by a different person, but at least the quality should be at a certain level consistently. I think this consistency is one of the things that makes Varnish better than most of the other places I've tried so far in LA. I was there one evening when things seemed to be a little off (a little too much dilution or something), but overall, I always feel like I'm getting my $13 worth there.

                            In other words, it's nice to go to a bar and find that so-and-so is making your drink, but it's nicer to go to a bar knowing that *someone* is going to make you a drink that's worth the $XX you're paying for; hopefully one that's as good or better than one I can make at home.

                            And really, mixing a drink properly isn't that difficult; it just requires some knowledge and attention to detail. It's a nice bonus when the person has some inventions or refinements of their own, really seems to "get" what kind of flavors you like, or is able to suggest other things you might like, and these are also attributes of a good bartender, but that's just like icing on top.

                            1. re: will47
                              c
                              cacio e pepe May 25, 2010 08:52 PM

                              While I agree with nearly everything you say, (except the not that difficult part. Working behind the stick in no way resembles mixing the perfect daiquiri at home.) the OP was looking for the best cocktails and mixologists in town. That does require knowledge of the who's who of the scene as part of the whole fun is getting to know the person behind the program at various top bars. These are the guys with the most creative cocktail minds and they are often the ones who purchase new spirits and ingredients. You want to know who to trust a "bartender's choice" order to.

                              You have to add Eric Alperin of The Varnish to peppermonkey's list. And to your point, his best asset might just be that he trains his staff so well. I've noticed a few Varnish alumni at places like Tar Pit and La Descarga.

                              And I'm going to keep singing the praises of Justin Pike of The Tasting Kitchen. He's more than a serious comer on the scene and he's a graduate of another of my favorite cocktail training ground -- Clyde Common of Portland, OR.

                              1. re: will47
                                peppermonkey May 27, 2010 12:01 AM

                                I agree. Rivera is pretty consistent. But there's just a little extra touch when Julian Cox makes your drinks. And he has the know how to be able to customize the drinks based on your preferences. Copa d oro is definitely not as consistent. Varnish is consistent but not very creative.

                            2. burumun May 28, 2010 12:16 AM

                              Does La Descarga count as "Hollywood"? If so, I'll add that to the list.

                              and The Varnish for sure, Cana Rum Bar, Tar Pit, Library Bar.

                              -----
                              La Descarga
                              1159 North Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90006

                              The Tar Pit
                              609 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: burumun
                                c
                                CaliGal888 Jun 1, 2010 05:59 PM

                                I'm still a fan of Lola's in Hollywood - they make a really good Apple Martini that's still good after all these years

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