If the great bars of Los Angeles could talk, they’d tell stories as intriguing and colorful as any collection of movie shoots on the city’s packed studio lots: dinky dives to glam diva dens, connoisseur cocktail bars, kitschy piano lounges, tiki temples and terraces with soaring views. Some are thick with old Hollywood history, while at modern-day classics you might expect a Real Housewife to saunter right in.
Downtown Los Angeles
Our journey starts in L.A.’s once sleepy but now booming Downtown. Get your bearings at the rooftop bar of the design-savvy Standard Hotel in a converted Mad Men-era oil company office building. There’s a nonstop party vibe amid red Astroturf, swimming pool, waterbed pods, topiaries, nightly DJs and a hip crowd to match the stunning downtown skyscraper views.
Nearby, atop a century-old building, the chichi bar/restaurant Perch has fab views across Pershing Square from outdoor patios and a roof deck. Creative cocktails (the spicy concombre to French maid) accompany snacks like truffle poutine and gougéres (puff pastries), and the jazz combos rock.
The Varnish is the Depression-style venue by which all others are measured – it won the Best American Cocktail Bar award at 2012’s Tales of the Cocktail competition. Burnished woodwork, flocked wallpaper and live music lend a speakeasy feel to your visit while you sip on precision-poured cocktails like the Deep Sea (gin, dry vermouth, absinthe, etc). It’s hidden in the back room of Cole’s restaurant (circa 1909), where the French dip sandwich was invented.
Silver Lake & Los Feliz
Rolling up Sunset Boulevard will bring thirsty travelers to the established hipster enclaves of Silver Lake and Los Feliz. An anchor of trendy Los Feliz Village, The Dresden matches over-the-top midcentury style with the retro songster stylings of piano, flute, drum and bass duo Marty and Elayne, a house fixture since 1982 – yes, you saw ‘em in the film Swingers.
Though it first opened its doors around the same time as the Dresden, the tiny, 12-stool Tiki Ti feels like it’s from a whole different world. Grizzled old-timers and young cuties rub elbows over wickedly strong tropical drinks amid surreal Polynesian decor. Another ‘60s touch of which we’ll let you be the judge: it’s the only bar we know in town where smoking is allowed, thanks to a loophole in California’s smoking ban.
The area also hosts one of LA’s most dependable gay bars – Akbar, which has cultivated a Casbah-style atmosphere, the best jukebox in town, theme nights off the main room (disco, arts-and-crafts, piano bar and more), and a spirited crowd that can change from hour to hour.
A trip through the up-and-coming Thai Town requires only that bar-hoppers be ready for anything. Divey Jumbo’s Clown Room sits within a strip mall, and somehow that feels just right. The main attraction is the female pole dancers bumpin’ and grindin’ for the $1, $5 or even, occasional $20 bill. Take it as a sign of their artistry that male and female patrons seem to admire these performances equally.
Down the street, Harvard & Stone feels like an abandoned factory with well-worn woodwork, leaded glass windows and a no-loud-colors dress code. Assured bartenders pour the Sloe Fix (rye, sloe gin, lemon, cranberry liqueur, allspice dram and shiner bock), intensely gingery Dark & Stormies (dark rum and ginger beer), and more standard cocktails and beers. Look for burlesque dancers Fridays and Saturdays and surf music Sundays.
In many ways, drinking in Hollywood means grabbing a stool next to ghosts of the silver screen. The last of Hollywood’s great dives, the Frolic Room dates from the Prohibition era, when it was – allegedly – the watering hole for headliners at the adjacent Pantages Theater (where Broadway road shows play nowadays). Its interior is straight from the ‘60s: an ancient cigarette machine, a Al Hirschfeld pen-and-ink-style mural of Hollywood icons and cheap, strong drinks.
Esquire magazine has called Musso & Frank one of America’s best bars. Order a martini from the elegantly uniformed staff, then sit back and dig the Rat Pack scene, baby. As you’re lounging, chow on old-school steaks, chops, or the fettuccini Alfredo recipe prepared for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford on their honeymoon.
Around the corner, Boardner’s has been the hangout of Hollywood luminaries since 1942: the list of celebs includes everyone from Errol Flynn and Johnny Carson to Peggy Lee and B-minus movie director Ed Wood (check out the photos of Johnny Depp playing him here in the Ed Wood movie shoot) along with baseball legends Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. The bar was also a favorite of that champ of all drinkers, Charles Bukowski. The adjacent nightclub has raging theme nights from ‘80s to Goth.
Off the main drag is the New Orleans-inspired warren of rooms of Sassafras. Order the Hurricane (a signature Big Easy drink that swirls together a potent mix of rums and juices) or dozens of specialty cocktails including bottled mixtures rotating above the bar on an antique coat rack, and rock out to the hot, nightly live music.
West Hollywood & Beverly Hills
Finally, direct your cabbie (or very patient designated driver) up the legendary Sunset Strip toward West Hollywood and swanky Beverly Hills beyond, beginning at Bar Marmont. Elegant but not stuck up, been around yet still cherished, this storied bar in the legendary Chateau Marmont Hotel has hidden above Sunset Strip since 1927 and continues to pull in the famous and wish-they-weres with high ceilings, molded walls and drinks ranging from classic aperitifs to the Marmont Mai Tai.
The sprawling Abbey is (many would say) America’s gay bar/club/restaurant of record. There are so many different flavored martinis and mojitos that you’d think they were invented here, plus a full menu. Match your mood to the many different spaces, from the vibrant outdoor patio to the Goth dance floor.
And what better way to end our journey than inside Beverly Hills’ beloved ‘Pink Palace,’ officially known as the Beverly Hills Hotel (circa 1912). The wood-paneled Polo Lounge has long served as unofficial hobnobbing headquarters for Hollywood’s elite: Darryl F Zanuck, Spencer Tracy, Will Rogers in the 1930s; nowadays you might spy anyone from Isaac Mizrahi to George Hamilton to David Arquette amid the mix of tennis whites, business suits and chichi dresses.