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.
Laurel Hardware; 7984 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 656-6070; laurelhardware.com.
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.
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.
Covell; 4628 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-660-4400; barcovell.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. 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.
At 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.
Tower Bar; 8358 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 323-848-6677; sunsettowerhotel.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.
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.
Vintage Enoteca; 7554 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, 323-512-5278; vintageenoteca.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 as 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.
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.