That’s the Spirit

In the wake of L.A.’s recently revitalized cocktail culture, au courant bars aren’t expanding but narrowing their beverage options, and nightlife tastemakers are opening temples devoted to their most beloved spirits. Think a rum speakeasy that offers a little taste of Havana, a whiskey den with 1930s panache or a beer bar that takes brews and sausages to the next level.

First you have to find La Descarga’s storefront—next door to a taco stand, on a block that looks nothing like a destination. The doorman is a signal that you’re in the right place—that is, until you step inside, amble up a staircase, and walk into ... an office. If at any point during this process you question whether you’re in the right place, you won’t be the first to do so. But then, with a knowing smile, a comely hostess throws open a pair of wardrobe doors, pushing aside hangers of clothes to reveal the entrance for this otherworldly rum bar.

If it ever went out of style, rum is certainly back in vogue—especially when served in the speakeasy-style joints that have popped up in the last year or two in L.A. Sipping some in this evocative lounge—styled as if it were plucked from the streets of midcentury Havana and dropped onto the edge of Hollywood—couldn’t be more chic.

Walk down a spiral staircase and find the main bar, where bartenders busy themselves muddling lime and sugar for mojitos and pouring daiquiris to a crowd of smartly attired revelers, who mind the upscale dress code. Crafted with the assistance of mixologist Pablo Moix, the cocktail list is a mix of old standbys plus signature drinks like the Bad Spaniard, made with Cruzan Blackstrap Rum, Averna Amero, Tres Leches and egg yolk. A jazz band and dancer, who performs hourly, entertain on the walkway above; an open-air cigar lounge in back provides another hangout. And it wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to Cuban nightspots if revelers didn’t salsa the night away.

La Descarga isn’t the only hot spot in town for quality artisanal rum cocktails. Sharing La Descarga’s taste for discreet locations,
Caña Rum Bar at the Doheny’s entrance in a parking garage leads into a low-lit den serving cocktails made from among 140 small-batch rums. The heated outdoor patio is popular during happy hour, when $6 cocktails like the Jamaican Sparkplug (dark Jamaican rum, lime, ginger, bitters and soda) come with a complimentary membership to the Caña Rum Society.

When Mark Peel isn’t in the kitchen at Campanile, he’s overseeing the action at
The Tar Pit, his art-deco-styled restaurant-lounge. Though not strictly a rum bar, the Tar Pit’s imbibing inspiration was the rum-based cocktails popular in the 1940s. Concoctions like the Prude’s Demise, with Jamaican over-proof rum, Velvet Falernum, kaffir-lime-and-pepper syrup and fresh kumquats, indicate Peel’s fondness for farmers-market ingredients.

Judging by the looks of the place, every day is Cinco de Mayo at Las Perlas tequila bar, the most festive in downtown czar Cedd Moses’ collection of nightspots and also one of the newest. The bar glows a fluorescent yellow with splashes of purple, making the rows of tequila bottles look like oversize Christmas lights. Signature cocktails are written in colorful script on a chalkboard, and booths with multicolor tablecloths dot the establishment.

Though it might also be at home on a beach in Cabo San Lucas, Las Perlas is a nicely transporting spot for downtown Los Angeles. The serious cocktailians drawn to the accomplished drinks at the Varnish across the street might also be impressed by the well-balanced efforts here, made with small-batch artisan tequilas and mezcals, house-made syrups and bitters, and fresh fruit and vegetable accents. (The name “Las Perlas” comes from the “pearls” that form when a bottle of mezcal is shaken.)

And the beverages live up to the quality of craft for which Moses’ bars are known. Mixologist Julian Cox, who stirred up wonderful, complex cocktails at acclaimed Rivera restaurant, signed up to helm Las Perlas’ menu. Cox’s recipes often marry the sweet with the savory or spicy, like the elaborate El Melón, with mezcal, Royal Combier, fresh-squeezed cantaloupe juice and goji berries, topped with cantaloupe foam, an edible flower and a dusting of pepper. It’s strange but delicious, as unexpectedly wonderful as this bright cantina in the middle of historic downtown.

Tequila has always been a spirit with passionate devotees. Where lucha meets tequila, West 3rd Street’s
El Carmen has been a nightlife mainstay for years, dive-y in the best way. The interior is a kitschy-cool explosion of color, adorned with Mexican wrestler masks and other lucha libre-themed décor touches. It also offers a mind-blowing 400 tequilas and Tex-Mex food menu.

Red O restaurant, guided by consulting chef and Mexican food authority Rick Bayless, tequila cocktails are the perfect complements to his fresh ceviches, tamales and tostaditas. The Tequila Lounge offers more than 75 varieties, many top-shelf labels. It’s accessed from the restaurant via a visually stunning “tequila tunnel,” a winding hall lined with premium bottles.

There are a few cases of sequels surpassing the excellence of the originals. In the case of The Thirsty Crow in Silver Lake, the former Stinkers Truck Stop—the deliberately cheesy watering hole of the beer-can décor and bar trimmed with fake stuffed skunks, which “sprayed” over unsuspecting customers—was closed and transformed into this sophisticated, surprisingly elegant new whiskey bar, all brick, chocolate leather booths, gleaming marble counter tops and espresso woods.

Bartenders who might have worn jeans before are nattily attired in shirts, vests, ties and caps, a nod to 1930s gentility. Where the air used to smell of ironically cheap beer, it now smells of singed orange peel, which bartenders ignite momentarily before placing on top of an Old Fashioned, a perfect finish to the most classic of cocktails.

Drinks are based mainly around bourbons, ryes and scotches, with a few champagne cocktails thrown in for good measure. In addition to classics like a Whiskey Sour and Mint Julep are signature Manhattans like the Marmalade Manhattan—with, you guessed it, orange marmalade and Maker’s Mark—and Molé Manhattan (“hints of chocolate and spice”). As an indication of the care involved in the mixing of the drinks, barmen use a nifty machine that compresses ice into large balls, which melt more slowly than standard-size cubes, impeding dilution.

If you’re a whiskey newbie, cultivate your taste buds at Thirsty Crow’s “whiskey education” nights on Sundays, featuring $4 glasses of Buffalo Trace bourbon and $5 Sazeracs.

The art of whiskey is similarly refined at downtown’s
Seven Grand. With its mounted stag heads, pool table, tartan wallpaper and walnut-wood accents, it looks like the kind of old-school, classy joint where your dad (or dad’s dad) might have hung out in his day. This modern-day boys club carries more than 300 ryes, bourbons and whiskeys.

A deep whiskey selection has elevated the scene at
BigFoot West in Culver City. The theme bar has a kitschy, log-cabin-like ambiance to match a tongue-in-cheek menu that includes favorites like the Girl Scout Cookie, a chocolate-mint martini “made from real Girl Scouts.” For its new, more grown-up menu, the former spirits director at the Thirsty Crow selected 80 whiskeys—35 bourbons, 10 ryes and 24 scotches among them.

When night falls in downtown’s fledgling Arts District—the home of Southern California Institute of Architecture, and dotted with restaurants and freshly built loft apartments—movement is always centered at one corner. It’s where beer-and-sausage bar Würstkuche holds court as the nighttime destination. Even when a line of hungry hipsters isn’t snaking outside the building—which, nine times out of 10, it is—patrons inside the noisy hall circle the rows of packed communal wood tables, waiting to pounce on an open spot.

But the convivial atmosphere and elbow-to-elbow seating is just a part of the charm at the hip but down-to-earth bar. Like the other newer beer bars in town, it’s hardly a place where you’d go for a Bud Light—although you might see a patron or two order that delightfully trashy ale, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Instead, customers order up Belgian and German craft beers and microbrews to pair with sausages ranging from traditional (bratwurst, hot Italian) to exotic (duck and bacon with jalapeño peppers, for instance, or alligator-and-pork andouille) and thick-cut Belgian fries, offered with a choice of sauces.

Claustrophobes can chill on the outdoor patio, but they’ll miss out on the raucous, beer-fueled fun that’s made Würstkuche the coolest place to get a cold one for the last three years.

Say the word “microbrew,” and an Angeleno is likely to think of
Father’s Office. At the Westside’s favorite gastropub, more than 35 beers on tap can be had with its signature burger—one of L.A.’s best—and a side of herb-flecked fries. Go to the original Santa Monica location or Father’s Office 2 in Culver City.

Newly revamped
Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank, a “vegan beer bar,” focuses on craft brews from California with 30 types on tap. The menu takes a cue from Würstkuche with a range of sausages, including a handful of faux-meat varieties.

At moody, Gothic-tinged
Villains Tavern, on the edge of downtown’s Arts District, the main bar serves cocktails, but an al-fresco bar is devoted to serving beers. Eight dollars buys a jar of one of 28 brews and a flavor profile-matched shot.

At Covell wine bar, a genial barman approaches you and asks, “What are you drinking?” It’s less a question about the label you’re eyeing on the menu—other than a few names scribbled on a blackboard, there is no menu—than an opener to a conversation about your palate. Red, white? Bubbles? Dry, fruity? Then he’s off to find the magic bottle and proffers a small pour, waiting for the affirmative nod that he’s hit the right note.

This personal interaction is no small feat on a Friday night in Los Feliz, when the bar is packed to the gills, twenty- and thirty-somethings toasting the end of the workweek amid quirky décor featuring walls adorned with ripped-out encyclopedia pages and vintage forks and cameras. The attention is natural for a new nightspot on the Eastside, but at Covell, the crowds may well end up being a permanent fixture.

Wine bars have proliferated in the last few years, but not all are selective about their wines, carelessly serving glasses of random, lukewarm reds and too-chilly Chardonnays. The knowledgeable duo behind Covell are general manager and wine director Matthew Kaner and owner Dustin Lancaster—the former hails from Silverlake Wine, the latter from Café Stella—who can be seen working the bar and striking up conversations with customers. Kaner and Lancaster also recruit their sommelier friends to help bartend, ensuring educated recommendations. Together, the friendly service and oenological know-how indicate a neighborhood spot with staying power.

There are dozens more wine bars across L.A. New
Vintage Enoteca offers a menu of small and shared plates by chef Paul Dozois, who has worked under Tom Colicchio, Wolfgang Puck and José Andrés. The name hints at Italian inspirations, but the wine list features producers from Italy, France, Spain, Austria, California and Washington.

Servers at approachable
BottleRock will crack open any bottle in its mind-boggling inventory—700 labels at the Culver City location, and 1,000 at the downtown branch—with the order of two glasses. Enjoy with a selection of cheeses and charcuterie or a truffled grilled cheese sandwich.

Saluté Wine Bar is tucked into the back of Edgemar Center for the Arts on Santa Monica’s chilled-out Main Street. Order a few piattini (small dishes) and imbibe 2-, 4- or 6-ounce pours from the Enomatic wine bar or order from the list of wines by the glass (it’s 90 deep) or bottle (250).

10939 Venice Blvd., Culver City, 310.287.2200 • BOTTLEROCK 3847 Main St., Culver City, 310.836.9463; 1050 Flower St., downtown, 213.747.1100 • CAÑA RUM BAR AT THE DOHENY 714 W. Olympic Blvd., downtown, 213.745.7090 • COVELL 4628 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz, 323.660.4400 • EL CARMEN 8138 W. 3rd St., L.A., 323.852.1552 • FATHER’S OFFICE 1018 Montana Ave., Santa Monica, 310.736.2224 • FATHER’S OFFICE 2 3229 Helms Ave., Culver City, 310.736.2224 • LA DESCARGA 1159 N. Western Ave., Hollywood, 323.466.1324 • LAS PERLAS 107 E. 6th St., downtown, 213.988.8355 • RED O 8155 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, 323.655.5009 • SALUTÉ WINE BAR 2435 Main St., Santa Monica, 310.450.3434 • SEVEN GRAND 515 W. 7th St., downtown, 213.614.0737 • THE TAR PIT 609 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., 323.965.1300 • THE THIRSTY CROW 2939 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake, 323.661.6007 • TONY’S DARTS AWAY 1710 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, 818.253.1710 • VILLAINS TAVERN 1356 Palmetto St., downtown, 213.613.0766 • VINTAGE ENOTECA 7554 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, 323.512.5278 • WÜRSTKUCHE 800 E. 3rd St., downtown, 213.687.4444