a trip back into time in downtown Los Angeles

Let’s face it.  Downtown Los Angeles is no New York City.  And yet, over the last 10-15 years, a conscious effort has been made by city planners to bring people back inside its historical borders.  Now host to a number of fantastic museums, Disney’s beautiful Frank Gehry-designed Concert Hall and the ever-expanding Staples Center, downtown Los Angeles is (still) ever poised for a comeback.  And thus, it should be no surprise that a number of developers have realized potential in many of the older Art Deco buildings whose glory days seemed long behind them.

Three of these transformations are now some of our favorite bars in all of Los Angeles.  And while the handsome watering holes may not serve well as every day “Happy Hour” joints, all three are perfectly suited to special event nights or for impressing out-of-towners with LA’s rarely seen historical opulence.

First on the list is the ever-popular Edison, a giant cocktail bar and events space that whimsically whips visitors back to the Prohibition-era 1920s.  Housed inside LA’s oldest power plant, Andrew Meieran’s 2007 redesign was meant to evoke the spirit of invention and imagination, seamlessly blending the past (Art Nouveau motifs) with the present (modern-day murals).  Meieran tops it all off with original artifacts and mechanisms from the Industrial Age.  The multi-tiered lounge, which takes up the entire basement of the 1910 Higgins Building, is the kind of place you could get lost in... on purpose.

Now, you may want to glam it up for a night out at the Edison!  The mood here is decidedly swanky, and visitors would be wise to check The Edison’s online calendar to determine whether live music or “vintage vinyl” DJs are on tap for the evening.  Set of Drifters tip:  Drinks can be pricey, though Wednesday though Friday nights The Edison hosts a cocktail hour starting at 5:00 PM where most drinks are 40% off!  Enjoy.

Another faboo downtown option is the Cicada, a two-story ballroom housed inside the glorious Oviatt Building.  While the space is predominantly used as an Italian Restaurant during the week, on Sunday nights it transforms into Maxwell DeMille’s “Cicada Club.”  A loving homage to the Big Band era, Cicada Club blends incredible live music with vintage dance instruction, tasty foodstuffs and historically accurate artisan cocktails.  Similar in vibe to The Edison (though perhaps more modern by about 15 to 20 years), the ballroom of the Cicada was once home to LA’s famous men’s department store, Alexander & Oviatt.  Many of the store’s original touches, including elaborate Egyptian-motif lifts, still remain.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Keep an eye out for a creepy-looking bellboy straight out of a David Lynch flick who will be ever so happy to ferry you up and down the cab.)

On the night we visited in December on 2010 for a Mad Men-themed party (the show has also filmed here), we especially appreciated the Cicada’s dedication to detail.  While “cigarette girls” roamed the floor, swanky bartenders educated imbibers on how to mix the perfect “Side Car” and “Vermouth Cassis.”

The Cicada Club is another spot you may want to pull out your best duds for.  (In fact, the doorman does adhere to a dress code; check Cicada Club’s FAQ’s for more information.)  Admission for shows varies, though usually start around $20 USD.  (This fee is waived is waived if you have made reservations for sit-down dinner; price is $69 USD.)  Maxwell DeMille’s Cicada Club is open select Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights starting at 6:00 PM with the incredible live shows beginning typically at 8:00 PM.  Check Cicada’s website “Telegram” for current performance schedule, keeping in mind that special events often close the Cicada Club on nights where no activity is listed.

For a more modern experience, though one still bathed in the tremendous beauty of the past, we also recommend Moustache Mondays at the Belasco Theater.  The gorgeous Belasco was founded way back in 1904, first serving as a stage for drama and burlesque.  After numerous twists and turns eventually transformed the space into a Gospel Temple during the 1950s, the Belasco was finally shut in 1987 and reserved only for special events or filming.  (Scenes from Memoirs of A Geisha were lensed here back in 2004).

More recently, the Belasco has reemerged from a tremendous $12 million renovation that updated both its conveniences - and soundsystem - and restored the exquisite Spanish Renaissance, Gothic and Moorish details throughout.  (You won’t believe the interior dome of that theater!  Bring a camera.)

Thanks to a cleverly divided multi-purpose space, the Belasco is now home to a number of different weekly events, though we’re quite partial to “Moustache Mondays.”  The roving mixed dance night brings out a bevy of denizens from all pockets of Metropolitan LA.  (We most recently indulged in a DJ night by Lady Miss Kier, the funktastic grand dame of ‘90s dance act Deee-Lite.)  With all of the colorful performance art, go-go dancing and outrageous street/ drag fashions, you might almost think you’re back in New York after all... 

Moustache Mondays often changes venues, so before you head on out in your best “Carmen Miranda-as-Crack Ho” get-up, you may want to check their current calendar of events.

Finally, we also recommend a drop by the venerable Millennium Biltmore, a Los Angeles mainstay currently celebrating its 90th Anniversary!  The interiors of this stupendous 600+ hotel are absolutely mindboggling, filled corner-to-corner with elaborate frescoes, vaulting wood-beamed ceilings and more chandeliers than you can shake a stick at.  If you can sneak past the gallery down into the Rendezvous Court, do it.  The marquetry and millwork here is out of this world!  And don’t miss the Gallery Bar and Cognac Room where an extensive list of signature martinis will make all those imported tapestries look even prettier than they already are!  A unique feature here is the “Manhattan Menu,” consisting of six different variations on the classic vintage cocktail.

The Edison - 108 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA  90012, (213) 613-0000,  http://www.edisondowntown.com/

Cicada Club - 617 S Olive Street, Los Angeles, CA  90014, (213) 488-9488, http://www.cicadaclub.com/main.asp

La Cita @ Belasco Theater - 1050 South Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA  90015, (213) 746-5670, http://www.thebelasco.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/MUSTACHEMONDAYS

Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles - 506 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA  90071, (213) 624-1011, http://www.millenniumhotels.com/millenniumbiltmorelosangeles/

Bar Sinister at Boardner’s

It seems Boardner’s bar has been around for eons.  In reality, however, it’s only been 70+ years that this nightlife institution has taken up residence at its prime Hollywood Boulevard location.  Through the decades, the watering hole has etched its way into Los Angeles folklore, even rumored as the spot Elizabeth Short downed her last cocktail before becoming the “Black Dahlia” (the victim of one of the most brutal murder mysteries in Hollywood.)  Some say she still haunts the place, a factoid that lured us in for our first visit while celebrating “Dial ‘M’ For Madonna,” World of Wonder’s group art show that featured Brady’s work.

By the 80s, Boardner’s was almost exclusively a punk rock hangout that served cheap booze and had fallen into a state of disrepair.  Happily, a 2004 renovation restored the space to its low-lit Art Deco origins, complete with tall leather booth seating that often attracts celebs.  As in its distant past, Boardner’s “Social Club” currently holds sway as a swanky little night spot perfect for those getting ready to hit the town.  Strong drinks accompany hearty bar food from a menu designed by celebrity chef “Bloody Bill” Annesley.  (We think you’ll like his grilled cilantro lime chicken skewers!)

Still, our favorite aspect of the nightspot has to be the addition of “Bar Sinister,” a weekly goth/ fetish event that has been seducing artists, emos and other weirdoes since 2001!  (At closer inspection, we tend to think of it more as “goth-lite,” a club night where most of the music vacillates between 80s synth-pop and 90s electronica - with a little industrial thrown in for good measure.)

If you’re seeking a great dance night that just happens to be set inside a circus, Bar Sinister is a wonderful choice.  Aside from the lavish decor of “Club B52,” partially lit by chandeliers and churchy stained-glass windows, there are plenty of areas to get lost in if you just need a break from the dancefloor.  Set of Drifters tip:  Those “fortunate” enough will run into psychic “Stardonna,” an older mystic who’ll read your palm for a reasonable $10-spot.

Upstairs, a lounge area showcases fetish performers - was that a whip crack? - and considerably shorter lines for the bar.  This is probably the best spot to kick back and spy on the intriguing fashion choices that abound.  Our favorite repeat offender is a porcelain-skinned nymph with a two-toned bob that resembles Cruella DeVille - albeit the modern day hipster version.

Outside in the candlelit Spanish courtyard, more elaborate performances feature on a small stage surrounded by wrought iron.  There’s bound to be at least couple people smoking cigs while wearing Beetlejuice’s black-and-white striped two-piece!  But have no fear; on any of our three visits, we’ve never had a problem with dress code.  Then again, we did show up once wearing top hats and fur-lined capes! 

But seriously though... If you are the type who normally dons shorts, tank tops and high heels, we would recommend wearing darker colors somewhere on your person.  We can’t recall seeing any frat boys or ho-bags swigging beer here, though to be quite honest, if you associate yourself with either tag, you probably won’t enjoy yourself anyway!

Bar Sinister enchants every Saturday night with a roving list of DJs.  If you’re still feeling a bit shy about indulging in the deca-dance, you can always check their website for recent playlists.  (Don’t worry; all of them include Depeche Mode somewhere in the set!)  Doors open at 10:00 PM with a cover charge of $10 USD before 12:00 AM; $15 thereafter.  Let the games begin!

Bar Sinister at Boardner’s - 1652 North Cherokee Avenue, Hollywood, CA  90028,   (323) 462-1934


Tiki T

Tiki bar fanatics who already live in Los Angeles know there are very few truly genuine spots left.  Back in the late 90s, new management ripped down Kelbo’s famous resin windows (which encased everything from bread to condoms), while just this past March saw Rosemead’s Bahooka serve its last flaming cocktail!

So what’s left?

Located in Loz Feliz off of Sunset, Tiki T is perhaps the last “true original.”  And thanks to a dedicated family-run staff who has mastered the art of keeping things authentic, the tiki haven still manages to pack ‘em in every night of the week!

Of course, this isn’t very hard to accomplish when your capacity is only 20 people.  Still, Tiki T clearly retains the (cocktail) recipe for success; it’s been open uninterrupted ever since Ray Buhen opened the joint back in 1961!

At the time, Ray (grandfather to current owner Mike, Jr.) was known around Los Angeles as the city’s premier mixologist.  Before bouncing around to several hip tropical bars in the area, Buhen had honed his skills working at the original Don The Beachcomber, slicing limes and serving up drinks to Hollywood’s Who’s Who.  (It was here where the original “Zombie” was crafted.)  

On the urging of friends and family, Buhen eventually broke away from other establishments to open his own, the Tiki T.  And luckily for you, he brought with him many of the classic cocktail recipes from yesteryear!  (Ever try Bette Davis’ favorite, the “Samoa of Samoa?”)  On last count, we spotted 51 official rum drinks on the Tiki T’s current menu.  Caution however:  the potency here is lethal.  You might want to book a limo driver for the ride home; sampling even a few of Buhen’s storied libations in one night is bound to make you bleary-eyed and bushy-tailed!

Tiki T - 4427 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90027, (323) 669-9381


POP Champagne and Dessert Bar (Pasadena)

Who doesn’t love champagne, the veritable poster child for celebration?  We’re certainly fans, and thus, while on a visit to Old Town Pasadena, we were eager to check out POP Champagne and Dessert Bar, a stylish watering hole where “bubbly” is almost treated like a science.  And yet, don’t let that clinical adjective stop you from checking out this extraordinary little surprise.  The secret to POP’s success is a unique blending of pomp - caviar anyone? - and practicality.  (Their “Create Your Own Omelet” station sounds incredible!)

An obvious labor of love for its owners, POP prides itself on pairing an ever-changing list of quality champagne and sparkling/ dessert wines with a sumptuous array of tasty delights, both sweet and savory.  While charcuterie and gourmet cheese plates are sure to be big hits, during our visit, we snacked on a variety of dessert crepes sweetened with rosehips ice cream!  (Yes, rosehips.)

And yes, true to form, the fizzy pop certainly pleased as well.  May we recommend the “Sparkling Hibiscus” and the “Lambic Float?”  The latter is served with two scoops of vanilla bean!  (Sounding too frou-frou for you?  No worries; POP also is home to a bevy of artisanal beers.)

POP is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 5:00 PM until at least 12:00 midnight, sometimes 1:00 AM while brunch has two seatings at 10:00 AM and 1:00 PM - but ONLY the second Sunday of each month!  Set of Drifters tip:  You could easily spend a whole day in Pasadena checking out the incredible Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, a series of majestic Craftsman houses near Old Town and, well, the ludicrous amount of stores.  Plan your day accordingly!

POP Champagne and Dessert Bar - 33 East Union Street, Pasadena, CA  91103, (626) 795-1295

Old Tony’s (Redondo Beach)

A California institution located on the Redondo Beach Pier, Old Tony’s has been serving up fresh comfort seafood and mouthwatering cocktails since 1952!  Today, with its kitschy nautical theme still well intact, it’s one of the last surviving establishments on the coast to offer such a whimsical brand of seaside charm – and at relatively decent prices.  We love this kitschy place so much, we’ll use any excuse to come back down for more seared ahi and fried coconut shrimp.

Upstairs, the Crow’s Nest (dubbed “Top O’ Tony’s”) features great ocean views from a centralized cocktail bar that doubles as the Captain’s steering cabin.  (If you are interested in hearing the locals gab at lunch, this is the place to earwig.)  It’s also the place to hear live acts, though we cannot vouch for their talent!

Downstairs, fisherman weights and the odd plastic catch hang from the ceiling in a series of rope nets.  And check out that cool vintage 1950s fire-pit, perfect for warming up after a stroll along the somewhat ruddy pier that is clearly undergoing a makeover!  Of course, the best seats in the house for dining are the ones along the bank of windows that hover right over the lapping waves of the Pacific Ocean!  On a sunny day, it is an exquisite view, though on a stormy one, expect to feel a little nervous with the swells crashing right up against the pylons of the pier that hold the restaurant up!

Old Tony’s is currently open for lunch from 11:30 AM until 2:00 PM with dinner following until 10:00 PM Sunday through Thursday and until 11:00 PM on Friday and Saturday.  The bar stays open even later, at least until midnight daily with live bands performing most nights.  Though we heard that Old Tony’s recently extended its lease through 2017, we still suggest checking out this classic retro bar soon, before it becomes yet another of our great lost venues!

Set of Drifters tip:  Creeping up the wall from the first floor to the second as you enter the restaurant are literally hundreds of black-and-white 8X10 photos featuring the faces and signatures of the “famous” clientele who have eaten here previously.  Dom DeLuise?  Check.  Phyllis Diller?  Check.  Burt Convey?  Check.  Will your favorite star of years gone by be featured?  You’ll just have to make a trip down to Redondo Beach yourself to find out!

Oh, and don’t forget to order a Mai Tai.  To accompany the live entertainment, Old Tony’s throws in a spectacular offer that your “Set of Drifters” have taken advantage of on several occasions!  Order their signature Mai Tai from the restaurant or bar for only $7 USD and you get to keep the cool cocktail glass that it comes in - complete with the vintage Old Tony’s logo and restaurant illustration printed on the side!

Old Tony’s - 210 Fisherman's Wharf Redondo Beach, CA 90277, (310) 374-1442


Smog Cutter

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again.  Not all dive bars are created equally  Our proof?  In the geographic space that exists between our current dwelling in Santa Monica and the no-frills Smog Cutter out in East Hollywood there must be at least 150 other “dives.”  And yet there’s hardly a better spot we’d bring an out-of-towner looking to get down’n’dirty for a night.

From the onset, the Smog Cutter looks, feels - and uh - smells like any other dive.  There’s a jukebox and a billiard table, a handful of beers on tap and a collage of faded photos from fabled party nights of yore.  (And you can bet parking your car out back will give you at least a heebie, or a jeebie!)  But there’s something different here if you take a closer look.  Located on the fringes of Los Angeles’ “Thai Town,” the Smog Cutter is run solely by a Thai family.  It’s their unique touch, perhaps literally, that makes this place so unforgettable.  (Are the Thai barmaids supplying lascivious “extras” to tourists out back?)

Our favorite time to pop in here is on one of their storied karaoke nights, where Koreatown locals and Silver Lake hipsters unite in a mish-mosh of all things so-so wrong.  Yes, drunken renditions of ‘80s hits gone by the wayside are the status quo here, but in their midst are glimmers of pure magic.  One of the bar hostesses, Jen, absolutely sleighed us a few years back with her heart-wrenching delivery of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.  Once swathed in a thick Thai accent, trust us, Stevie Nicks’ lyrics will never sound more poignant.  Jen’s sister(?) Bonnie is another of the Smog Cutter’s best assets.  From behind her post, she will fetch you up some of the meanest drinks in town, and at shockingly cheap prices.  (You’d think you would have to pay extra for that smile!)

The Smog Cutter is the kind of place where you can wear a wig and pass it around to the new friends you make throughout the evening - or at least that’s what we did one night passing back to Santa Monica from Silver Lake.  Set of Drifters tip:  The relatively small joint can get rather packed on the weekends, so if you are afraid of crowds, check this place out during the week.  Oh, and the bathrooms are not pretty.  Bring Kleenex!

Smog Cutter - 864 North Virgil Avenue, Los Angeles, CA  90029, (323) 660-4626

coffee snobs, this one’s for you!

The “art of coffee” has really flourished over the last two decades, and no more so is this evident than in the cafes and coffeehouses of the American West Coast.  From Seattle to Portland, San Francisco to Los Angeles, caffeinated hipsters have united to provide those less initiated with specialized experiences almost too surreal to believe.  Ever had a “coffee and jelly donut” combo in one single espresso shot?  We hadn’t either... until friends of ours turned us on to LA Mill in Silver Lake.

The brainchild of Craig Min and Jean Shim-Min, LAMill prides itself on a deep love and attention to all things coffee, even going so far as to liken their various bean varieties to fine wine!  (Well, excuuuuuuse me.)  We’ve seen other shops like this before - Silver Lake’s Intelligentsia comes to mind - and to be perfectly honest, we can’t even begin to understand the intricacies of what makes a $7 cup of coffee worth it.  Not will we ever understand how those individualized set-ups that are delivered to your table for maximum freshness and taste actually work.  (They’re pretty cool looking though.)  Ultimately, what makes LA Mill so worthy of a visit, is that it’s not just all about superior coffee (or tea).  Served in a beautifully-designed setting, wonderful breakfasts, delectable sandwiches and desserts will have your mouth watering morning, noon or night!  Just take a look at that menu – that is if you can pry your eyes away long enough from playing “spot the celebrity hipster!”

LAMill’s “Boutique Store” in Silver Lake is open Sunday through Thursday from 7:00 AM until 10:00 PM and Fridays and Saturdays from 7:00 AM until 11:00 PM.  (They also sell their coffee beans on-site on a slightly more scaled-back schedule.)  Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, the espresso drink infused with "essence of a jelly donut” was ace!

Other similar coffee snob-hubs can be found throughout Los Angeles.  Aside from the aforementioned “Pretense-igentsia” (also in Venice), strong, unique brews can be yours at Handsome Coffee (located in the fab LA Arts District), and at Funnel Mill in Santa Monica.  The latter even serves up “kopi luwak,” the famed “cat-poop” bean variety that we tried first in East Java, Indonesia.  (See “sips” in “Java” and “Waroeng Luwak” in “Bali” for more information.)    

LA Mill Coffee - 1636 Silver Lake Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90026, (323) 663-4441, http://www.lamillcoffee.com/

Intelligentsia (Silver Lake) - 3922 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90029, (323) 663-6173 and Intelligentsia (Venice) - 1331 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice, CA  90291, (310) 399-1233, http://www.intelligentsiacoffee.com/locations

Handsome Coffee - 582 Mateo Street, Los Angeles, CA  90013, (213) 621-4194, http://www.handsomecoffee.com/why

Funnel Mill - 930 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA  90401, (310) 393-1617, http://www.funnelmill.com/

Culver City cocktails

As you may have already noticed, we’re fans of dive bars.  If you’re heading in the direction of Culver City, Hollywood’s twin sister in the movie-making business, we thought we might share with you a few of our favorites!

With its brightly-colored blue and red sign that spells out its name in a quirky, oversized font, the Tattle Tale Room is easily one of the weirder places we’ve been to in LA.  Located on the corner of Sepulveda and Jefferson (yes, across from the Target), this place features a diverse clientele of young hipsters, local freaks and elderlies all looking to get their “golden throat” on!  If you’re similarly a fan of karaoke, do yourself a favor and head on down.  Just don’t let that guy out front dressed as “Little Richard” intimidate you.  He’s the bouncer.

Like beer?  Get ready to enjoy a lot of it.  The Tattle Tale serves only 44oz. cans!  No wonder we saw so many old inebriated codgers dancing alongside some pretty young things!  One gentleman in particular looked like he had just escaped from the hospital.  How else could he explain that white stomach truss?  This place is nuts.

Elsewhere in Culver City, this time only a few blocks from its Arts District, is another of our faves.  Also a former dive, the Mandrake has been renovated and brought into the 21st century.  It’s perhaps the closest thing we’ve seen in LA to a divey Williamsburg watering hole of the early 2000’s.  Natural wood tables, cool video projections and a sweet, but tiny outdoor patio for smokers, completes the Brooklyn vibe... minus the cold weather!

The Mandrake is the perfect place to visit after checking out nearby galleries along La Cienega, particularly if you are looking to get your dance on!  We reckon this area is going to blow up in the next couple years so do yourself a favor and check it out before the Mandrake becomes too popular.

Happy Hour grooves on Monday through Friday with laptop DJs (oh joy!) between 5:00 PM and 9:00 PM.  Expect some mean cocktail specials.  The only bummer of this place is that it closes at midnight during the week and at 1:00 AM on Friday and Saturday night.  Not exactly NYC-style, but then again, this is Los Angeles and we need to wake up early to attend our yoga classes!

Tattle Tale Room - 5401 Sepulveda Boulevard, Culver City, CA  90230, (310) 390-2489, http://www.tattletaleroom.com/

Mandrake - 2692 South La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90034, (310) 837-3297, http://www.mandrakebar.com/

We also recommend:

Jerry's Flying Fox (vintage soul vibe Tarantino would appreciate) - 3724 West Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA  90008, (323) 293-5544

Redwood Bar & Grill (punk/ rock in a pirate's bar) - 316 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA  90012, (213) 680-2600, http://www.theredwoodbar.com/2012/calendar.html