When it comes to high quality food and drinks, Los Angeles is a mecca on the Left Coast. Out of all the culturally-relevant metropolises on the west side of the country, it is a city that rivals New York in both creativity and progressiveness.
With an ever-expanding roster of “it” places to try, it can be daunting weeding out bars actually worth your time. To help create a list of must-try bars for visitors, we consulted with the experts for advice. Here, five Los Angeles bartenders weigh in on their favorite bars to go when they’re off the clock or entertaining out-of-town guests.
According to Israel Mejia, the restaurant and bar manager at Auburn, a New American restaurant on Melrose, the Broken Shaker at The Freehand Hotel is one of the best bars to go to for cocktails—especially tropical libations. “I love tiki cocktails,” says Mejia. “This bar does an amazing job and they deliver one the best tiki lists in Downtown L.A.” Bar director Christine Wiseman’s ever-evolving cocktail menu at the Broken Shaker not only has a variety of crushable tiki drinks, but it also has a mix of original cocktails and classics that utilize seasonal ingredients sourced locally and from the garden at the hotel. Most importantly of all, there’s outside seating and a pool. “Go on a sunny day, sit by the pool, sip on some tiki drinks and enjoy a good relaxing Sunday with friends.”
Another favorite cocktail bar of Mejia’s is Harvard & Stone in Thai Town. A strange mix of old time Americana, top-tier mixology, burlesque and live rock n’ roll, the bar is wholly unique. “When I’m looking to have a good time or I’m entertaining friends from out of town, I take them here,” says Mejia. “Every other week they have The Harvard House Band ready to rock your socks off. Bar director Aaron Polsky also brings guest bartenders and creates a different menu almost everyday. If you're lucky, you might even see Polsky jump on stage and sing his heart out.”
When Mejia needs to unwind after work, his go-to bar is The Normandie Club at the Normandie Hotel. “This [is the] place in the city that is special to me,” he says. “I don’t like going on the weekend because it's too crowded, but on weekdays it’s quiet and I can come in, sit at the bar and enjoy a very well made mezcal Negroni or a Daiquiri.” If you happen to be traveling to Los Angeles with a special someone—or you’re in L.A. to visit said special someone—Meija says that this is the perfect spot for a romantic night out. “There’s low lights, the music isn’t too loud, the service is straightforward and the corner booth is perfect with your significant other.” If you’re alone, the bar’s old school Hollywood vibes would also lend themselves to “thinking about the title of your next novel.”
Justin Campbell, the bar director for The h.wood Group, an upscale lifestyle group that owns and operates the restaurants Delilah, Petite Taqueria and Bootsy Bellows (including others), has a favorite bar in Los Angeles for every occasion.
In Sheep’s Clothing, which is semi-hidden in the Arts District in Downtown L.A., is Campbell’s suggestion for music lovers and audiophiles like himself. By day, the bar is essentially a Japanese tea shop, then at night it turns into a full cocktail program with natural wines and a great selection of Japanese whiskies. According to Campbell, the bar and cafe only plays vinyl on Hi-Fi (uncompressed) collector-worthy equipment, and focuses on new age funk music by day and jazz and soul music late at night. “I love that the employees all have a background in music—whether that be degrees in music or worked as DJ’s—so everyone is truly passionate about music.”
As an expat from Chicago, Lowboy in Echo Park is Campbell’s cocktail bar that gives him a warm, home-y sensation. “It felt like my hometown Chicago bar,” he notes. “Mainly because of the great hospitality vibe and the fact that the entire staff is super kind and very approachable. There’s a rotating cocktail on the chalkboard, $10 beer and shot combos, and bargain beers.”
Campbell’s after-work stomping ground is the Melrose Umbrella Company on Melrose Ave. It is the “perfect spot for something real, quick and painless,” and that you can always rely on the staff to give phenomenal hospitality to their guests. Campbell also says that if you work in hospitality, it's an industry spot and they will take care of you accordingly. If that’s not enough of a reason to go, there’s also a “really cool patio.”
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Jake Larowe, the bar manager at Birds & Bees, a 1950’s-themed cocktail bar in Downtown Los Angeles, narrowed his list down to the neighborhood near where he works—as he drinks mostly after a long shift—and each bar he frequents depends on his mood and the vibe he wants to imbibe in.
For a fantastic restaurant cocktail program, Larowe likes to go to Otium (next to The Broad museum). “Not only are all the drinks expertly crafted, but the attention to detail that goes into each one is top notch,” he cites. “Every time they put out a new menu, I see drinks and ingredients being put together that I wish I had thought of.”
For a more laid-back atmosphere, Larowe recommends going to Mezcalero, a “casual diamond in the rough downtown.” He says that the cocktails at the bar “are well thought-out and the staff is always so nice.” If you’re a fan of mezcal, this is the spot to go to in the area. “I am extremely jealous of their mezcal selection.”
If you are looking for complex, experimental and “downright mind-blowing” cocktails in the Downtown area, The Wolves is your best bet. “[This is] one of the prettiest bars I have ever seen,” says Larowe. “Everything is made by hand with only fresh seasonal ingredients. They make their own bitters, Amaros, vermouths, fernets, liquors, etc. When you order a drink from one of their bartenders, you can taste how much thought and effort was put into each and every ingredient.”
For Patrick Cook, the beverage director at Hyperion Public in Studio City, the collective favorite bar amongst the staff is the Chimneysweep Lounge in Sherman Oaks. This “great little dive” is one of those classic unpretentious neighborhood bars that are harder and harder to come by these days. “We usually head there for the last hour of the night after our shift,” says Cook. “It’s a special little spot that’s been around since the 60s. It’s not a place serving only specialty craft cocktails, but it’s still a place most of our regulars and friends go after we close. It’s fun just to head over and catch up and decompress with everyone after a long night of bartending. They’ve got a game room, popcorn and cheap drinks. What else do you need?”
Matt Bone, the general manager at Freedman's, a traditional Jewish deli in Silverlake, likes to frequent Old Lightning in Marina Del Rey. While technically a cocktail bar with a strong tiki vibe, this spot is “really an ode to drinking,” says Bone. There’s no cell phones allowed (they check them at the door) and you need to email the owners before you go. Most of the liquor is beyond rare and won’t be available anywhere else. “While the cocktails are great and the execution flawless, the real draw of Old Lightning is their unparalleled spirits list. Not a bar to visit every night, but on a special occasion with a special person, the place can be amazing.”
According to Bone, every neighborhood needs a great 6:00 a.m. bar. For him, The Cozy Inn in Culver City may be unrivaled in Los Angeles. “With multiple dart boards, pool tables, shuffleboard and an endless array of bottled macro beers, it is the kind of bar I often find myself in for hours.” And when it comes to traditional dives, Bone prefers Ye Rustic Inn in Los Feliz. A landmark dive established in 1971, this spot serves “the best wings in Los Angeles.” They also have cheap beer, a friendly staff and breakfast on the weekends.
Austin Mendez, the bar manager of one-MICHELIN-starred Kali, a striking minimal restaurant on Melrose known for its mind melting takes on California cuisine, had too many favorite bars to list all of them. At the top of his list was Big Bar inside the Alcove cafe and bakery in Los Feliz. According to Mendez, it’s the perfect spot for leisurely drinking and eating—especially if you can get a seat on their big patio. “Cari Hah runs the bar there,” says Mendez. “Her cocktails, combined with the big patio and the food, makes for the perfect place to relax. I am never disappointed.”
Messhall, where Mendez used to tend bar, is another fave. “They have one of the best whiskey collections around,” he says. “They have a 'Roll the Dice' option where the bartender just makes you a cocktail of any sort—they literally can mix up hundreds of classic cocktails. Every drink is always balanced.”
Lowboy, a recently opened cocktail bar in Echo Park, is Mendez's new go-to spot for high-end drams and neighborhood appeal. “I’m super into the vibe,” he says. It’s relaxed and mellow, with decently priced drinks and a super talented bar director. I see this spot getting more and more popular each day.”
Located in the back of Cole's Restaurant in Downtown L.A. lies Mendez’s favorite speakeasy, Varnish. “This is the most famous speakeasy bars in all of L.A.—and with good reason,” he states. “I would recommend this place to any [first-time] visitor to the city and to those that are looking for that unique feel that you won't find anywhere else.”
And when Mendez is craving classic tiki cocktails, he says that the only choice in the City of Angels is Tiki-Ti in Silverlake. “This is a total throwback. The drinks are high alcohol, high sugar and high energy.” Just be warned that there are really no set hours, and the bar is open at the whims of the owners. But, according to Mendez, that also makes getting a drink there so special. “Be prepared for yelling, fun and tiki insanity.”