You can't open a restaurant in L.A. these days without a strong cocktail program, or at least one with all the usual cues of a legitimate drink menu. So it's no surprise that even the city's clubby spots have been pushing their own "craft" concoctions in a pale attempt to pass muster.
Generally, these nightlife spots are heavy with the scenesters and fashionable types, the ones wearing flashy watches and Christian Louboutins on a weeknight and hitting Snapchat before they order drinks. But they're not much for actual acts of mixology greatness.
Last week, two Eater editors and a professional bartender (we'll call him Dominick) decided to investigate a few of LA's trendiest spots to find out if they can actually make a good drink. First up, one of the bougie-st restaurant-lounges in town, Ysabel.
Coser's take: The very first thing the strikes you at Ysabel is the sheer beauty of the place. It comes of as effortlessly chic, with an inviting patio and string lights that radiate a soft glow throughout the space. The cocktail menu, at least on paper, matches what you would expect of a place this good looking. Words like sous-vide get thrown around, intimating a level of sophistication intended to attract a commensurate kind of client.
We started by ordering what the bartender said was the most popular drink, sitting prominently at the very top of the menu. Dubbed the Charli, it mixed Rain Vodka, fresh juiced honeydew, cucumber, and mint. Dominick called attention to the fact that Ysabel listed every liquor brand they were using on the menu, and explained that liquor companies offer kick-backs and access to harder-to-find brands for pushing less desirable labels. This choice was particularly notable for Rain Vodka, given that it retails for less than twenty dollars a bottle.
While the Charli could've been a refreshing sipper on a balmy evening, it was over-shaken, making it taste watery. Dominick noted the lack of any acid, which threw it out of balance. Like salt and pepper, shaken drinks need to balance sweet with sour.
Even still, there was no denying the pleasant surroundings.
Kang's take: Our man Dominick was quick to point out a few health department hazards, like raw eggs sitting on the counter.
Ysabel is a classic case of a fancy menu throwing around buzzwords and using placed liquor brands on the menu.
We sipped the Charli, which tasted like a refreshing spa beverage. Sure, it had Rain vodka. Does anyone ever drink Rain vodka in their home or at a club or at any other bar by their own volition? I'm doubtful. We also got the Maria Linda, prominently made with El Silencio (a decent mezcal), but mixing orange blossom, orange bell pepper, and Thai chili. While this drink was better than the Charli, the really strong bell pepper flavor overpowered any of the booze.
Ysabel is a classic case of a fancy menu throwing around buzzwords and using placed liquor brands on the menu. Oh, and one $18 drink used high quality Japanese whiskey in a shaken cocktail, which is just a tragic waste of delicious booze.
The Takeaway: For the vodka-soda-loving crowd, there's no doubt it is worth a visit. Just be ready for boozy spa beverages.
Coser's take: You know you're in for a special evening when a restaurant comes outfitted with a photo booth and a duo of overly-zealous dancing DJs on a Monday night. As at Ysabel, the cocktail menu is littered with name brand dropping, only this time the spirits are usually worth mentioning.
The self-described "sexy departure from the traditional Mexican restaurant experience" primarily offers variations on margaritas, with the exception of a handful of drinks like the Southern Belle, made with Bulleit bourbon, Ancho Reyes liqueur, and lemon. Dom and I weren't sure if it was watered down on purpose to somehow mimic the consistency of a margarita, or if it was simply given an overly athletic shake from our affable bartender. Either way, not tasty.
[Drinks at Toca Madera]
Kang's take: Unlike Crystal, I'm way too old for places like this. You could say the decor is either obnoxious and over the top, or exotic and sexy. I'm leaning toward the former, mostly because I tend to find places like Pour Vous and Melrose Umbrella Company to be actually sexy. Toca Madera is not the kind of place where I would take a date, but I'm pretty sure a lot of people disagree with me.
Toca Madera is not the kind of place where I would take a date, but I'm pretty sure a lot of people disagree with me.
The first thing I realized was that every drink seemed like a variation on a margarita. First, no stirred drinks (who in Hollywood has time to bother with a well-stirred Manhattan?). Second, every drink boasted hot liquor brands (Herradura, Zacapa, Ketel One), a sure sign that I was going to hate this place. Finally, the drinks were just ugly. Zero points for garnishing here. Sure, the salt rims were solid, but a drink is so much more than a salt rim.
The Takeaway: Come for the music, be ready to shell out major cash, but the drinks aren't going to be very good.
The Nice Guy
[Fig Et About It at The Nice Guy]
Coser's take: The Nice Guy is the sort of place you see plastered on the pages of tabloids as the host of such gatherings as Kylie Jenner's 18th birthday party with the Kardashian clan. That being said, hopes were not high for the lounge with one of the tightest doors in town.
However, we were all pleasantly surprised with the offerings from The Nice Guy's oddly-shaped bar, which made it the unanimous winner for the bar of the night. Of note was the Fig Et About It, a seasonal cocktail composed of Plymouth Gin, fresh fig puree, lemon, Mandarin Napoleon, egg white, and topped with black pepper. The drink was nicely acidic and well-balanced, and came as a real treat after our previous stops.
The real winner though was A Mo's Paloma, made with Don Julio Reposado, Campari, fresh grapefruit, and lemon. As the drink was so clearly targeted towards the ladies, we had the expectation of an overly saccharine desecration, but it was actually composed with the finesse of a fine cocktail. The drink was surprisingly bitter, bright, and not overly sweet. This is the cocktail that perfectly marries the objective of the lounge with a well executed beverage program.
[Probably the best drink of the night, the well-garnished A Mo's Paloma]
Kang's take: I'm fairly certain the doorman just took one look at me and determined that I wasn't the kind of riffraff they were going to allow into the The Nice Guy (people like Justin Bieber, Kate Upton, and Drake have been known to hang out here, and a quick Google search shows virtually every A-lister comes through the place).
I texted a gal that knew a guy that could let us in, and sure enough, the doorman acquiesced. The lesson here is: be Justin Bieber (or Drake) and you can get into The Nice Guy. Or make a reservation by calling in. It's not supposed to be that hard, especially on a Monday at 11:30 p.m.
Once seated, we ordered the Fig Et About It (made with fig, gin, and egg white topped with black pepper), which I found to be a little on the sweeter side for me (most drinks are too sweet, I've gotten over it), but the A Mo's Paloma was actually a fantastic, balanced rendition of the Mexican classic. Even our bartender friend Dominick liked it. Easily the best drink of the night, and only $15 bucks. Normally, The Nice Guy is not for poor guys.
The Takeaway: If you can get in, you'll have more than solid drinks here.
EP + LP
Coser's take: EP + LP was having a rough night. When we arrived around 1 a.m., the bar was trying to close early. When we asked if they had the much buzzed about Thai tea boba cocktail, they referred us to a limited drink menu because the refrigerated walk-in had broken.
Instead, we got the Kriss Kross, a gin-based drink with kaffir lime cordial, coconut water, cardamom bitters, and housemade boba pearls. Perhaps the fridge bust wrecked havoc on the boba as well, as normally chewy centers were hard and unpalatable. That being said, I very much enjoyed liquid part of the drink, although Dom was not a fan.
We barely touched the Life Cultivated Old Fashioned, which came with a heavy hand with the sweetener that I'm sure had the best intentions to please the West Hollywood set, but did little for our group. That being said, the bartenders were hospitable, and rooftop view is still one of the best in town. And the bar certainly can pour a good shot of Fernet, which concluded our evening.
Kang's take: EP + LP is another A-list West Hollywood hot spot, a place that's surely way too hip for me on an average night (okay let's just clear the air and say that essentially every place in Hollywood is beyond me). LP, the rooftop, has near un-obstructed views of Mid-City, WeHo, and the Hollywood Hills. It's a pretty amazing place, and there's plenty of space to lounge around.
We ordered up a few drinks, almost none of which I liked very much, but it could've been that they were ready to wind down for the night.
The Takeaway: You're probably here for the views, but make sure their boba game is strong when you're ordering.