This is The Barkeepers, a regular feature in which Eater roams the city to meet the fine ladies and gentlemen that work behind the bar at some of LA's hottest cocktail parlors.
Photos by Elizabeth Daniels
Though he hasn't been behind the stick at Big Bar for long, Aaron Alvarez loves to talk about its tradition. As bar manager of the ironically diminutive Los Feliz drink spot, Alvarez is tasked with crafting an innovative cocktail menu, while making sure not to alienate the customers that made the bar so popular. "We don't need to reinvent the wheel every six months to be successful," he says, though a penchant for craft runs deep in the history of the place.
Eater met up with Alvarez to talk about what his job as bar manager really entails, his process for creating a new cocktail and the simplicity that makes Big Bar such a local favorite.
How long have you been at Big Bar?
Since the beginning of June. Before that I was working with Innovative Dining Group at RivaBella. You know, my title at RivaBella was bar manager, and my title here is bar manager, but the jobs are so different. This job here [at Big Bar] is amazing. This job doesn't exist anywhere else that I've ever heard of. It's a really creative team, and we get to do all these fun events, that I sort of get to be at the helm of. It's really cool.
Why leave RivaBella to come here?
Without getting into the pros and cons of each, what really drew me in to this job is that I'm part of a legacy. Juan Sevilla was the first bar manager. He left here to go back to SoHo House in New York, so Dan Long, who was a bartender here, sort of absorbed his duties. Dan was here for four years, he was bar manager for three. Those two, along with Eugene Lee, created something really special here, so for me to be next in line is special.
Big Bar is a chance for me to become a bit more in the spotlight within the Los Angeles cocktail community. A lot of people love this place, and now that I've been here, I see that. People I've worked with, or know in the community, they just come in here, because it's such an awesome place to have a drink. That's why I'm here.
The Alcove is its own very popular beast. Does that limit your ability to maybe do some of the things you'd like?
I think that we've met a really nice balance. The overall energy of the place suits what we want to do. In my experience here, I haven't felt shackled by any restraints. Obviously, you want to make something that's going to be scalable for your volume. It's always in the back of your mind.
Maybe it's just that we're not a huge place, or we've got a great team that's comfortable with their surroundings. Maybe it's that we keep things simple and straightforward, but we seem to manage things just fine.
So you don't ever feel hemmed in by the lack of space?
I don't know. When I talk about Big Bar to people, they usually say 'Oh, yeah, The Alcove.' It's sort of become one thing, but I don't need to be a separate entity. I think within a certain community, people know Big Bar as one thing, Alcove as another, but it's really not. I love it. When you're in this little alcove, you're somewhere else, and we're a part of that.
Is there something that you think doesn't work for this space?
I don't think that we should ever try to be too molecular. I think keeping things kind of lowbrow is our sweet spot. Sure, I think that we should be creative and we definitely don't want to pigeonhole ourselves into any one thing, but we don't need to reinvent the wheel every few months to be successful. That's why people come here. It's the consistency they rely on.
Who do you think your average customer is?
It's so crazy. It's such a cross-section between people on business meetings, people coming back from hiking, people on dates, cocktail enthusiasts, neighborhood people who just want to walk down the street for a drink. We really see it all. This place appeals to so many people. It's such a charming place.
What's your process when creating a new menu?
I'm all over the place. Sometimes I can come up with a bunch of different cocktails at once. Other times, I'll go through dry spells where I really won't be creative. I'll focus on cleaning house or whatever it may be. It just comes in spurts. I enjoy being creative with cocktails, but I don't have a playbook necessarily. I'm really passionate, and very much a student, when it comes to everything on the back bar. I get excited when I try a new spirit or modifier or whatever it is. And oftentimes, that's where the inspiration comes from.
Do you have a favorite cocktail that's currently on the menu?
I've been feeling the Sun King; it's relatively low in alcohol by volume. It's like a gin and tonic without the gin. It's got Kina L'Avion, grapefruit, lemon, so it tastes of quinine and hints of bark; sort of bitter, but with fruit juice. It's just awesome. It's what I would want to drink if I came in here and sat on the patio.
Obviously, you're still settling in. What changes do you think are coming down the line?
Minor tweaks. I think what's really cool about this job is the freedom we have at the bar. I'm going to find my own style here. I've been behind a bar for 12 years, but I've only really been doing classic cocktails for a little over four years. I'm still learning, and this is going to be a great place for me to evolve. I'm sure I'll have my own organizational changes, but as far as the guest and their perception? I think it'll be gradual. It'll change as I change.
· All The Barkeepers Coverage [~ELA~]
· All Big Bar Coverage [~ELA~]