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Bartenders behind the bar at Bar Flores in Echo Park with colorful bottles on the wall.

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What Happens to LA Bar Culture and Its Bartenders After COVID?

The Los Angeles bar scene is changing. What will it look like when bars fully reopen?

Bar Flores in Echo Park in August 2019
| Wonho Frank Lee

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Mona Holmes is a reporter for Eater Los Angeles and a regular contributor to KCRW radio. She has covered restaurants, dining, and food culture since 2016. In 2022, the James Beard Foundation nominated her for a Jonathan Gold Local Voice Award.

After nine years of bartending at Hollywood bars and clubs like the Pikey and Derriere, D.C. Cody is done. “I am not planning on going back,” says Cody. “I love bartending and miss being able to go to a bar [to] drink with friends, as we all [do…] Just goes to show you, life has a different plan for you.”

Pivot. It’s the word of the year for Cody and countless others across the restaurant and bar industries. Everyone has been forced to adapt or be swept up in the most significant health event of the last 100 years. Bartenders are no different, but they certainly had a hard go.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, California bars have been mostly closed. On March 15, Mayor Eric Garcetti required bars and restaurants to cease in-house operations, while residents were advised to stay home. The temporary shelter-at-home order was supposed to end March 31, but was extended to April 19, 2020. Reopening was pushed to May 15 and then August, and officials issued more extensions and guidelines until the 2020 winter surge took hold. Restaurants even had a brief period during the summer when their dining rooms were allowed to open at limited capacity, though they were required to close again in July. Throughout all of this, bars without a patio were unable to do much else but remain closed.

Until COVID-19 is under control, officials will continue to minimize its spread through facial coverings, social distancing, and other safety measures. But preparing drinks and interacting with customers is a highly social activity. It’s a coronavirus-unfriendly activity. Every establishment requires conversation and interaction. Preparing the bar for service means hours of refilling bottles and slicing garnishes before the first customer arrives. Leaning in to hear someone’s order, or launching a conversation to figure out a customer’s taste, is essential to this craft. Health officials recommend against any of this typical bar behavior in order to halt the spread of the virus.

When LA bars were ordered to close one year ago, Cody was out of work. With ample time away from his recently shuttered bar, Cody and his co-author wrote and published their first book, Mandy’s Pet Shop: A pet shop for monsters, within eight months. Nearly one year later, Cody’s lifestyle is completely different.

“I’m a lot healthier now,” says Cody. “At work, you’re tasting booze all the time. It’s your job to taste cocktails, try new products that people are bringing into your establishment, and constantly make new recipes. From the nightclub job, I would roll in at 3:30 in the afternoon and wouldn’t get into bed until 4 a.m. Now, I have a very set schedule.”

Cody and his co-author in talks with literary agents about a potential children’s book series deal, developing an editorial review website for other people’s books, and editing books and scripts by other authors. These are all paths Cody wouldn’t have pursued while bartending. He never had the time. “If everything works out, I might be at a place where I hopefully don’t have to go back.”

But not everyone has been so fortunate.

Yancy’s Steaks and Pierogies
People carry their pints of beer past tables for outdoor dining in Los Angeles on July 1, 2020.
People carry their pints of beer past tables for outdoor dining in Los Angeles, California on July 1, 2020.

On March 20, 2020, California Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) eased long-standing alcohol sale restrictions, making it possible for restaurants to sell booze to go, but only if food was being sold at the establishment’s on-site kitchen. In May, ABC then ruled that bars, breweries, and wineries could offer drinks to go, but only if accompanied by a food from a pop-up business, food truck, or vendor that could sell food on-site. That type of partnership proved challenging, especially in the early days of the pandemic when safety measures were still a mystery.

On May 29, Gov. Gavin Newsom and LA County public health officials announced the reopening of dining rooms that evening, to the surprise of many inside and outside the industry. Soon after, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti implemented his alfresco program, which expanded outdoor seating into public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots. Relief arrived June 19 when bars were finally allowed to open. But the moment was short-lived, as Newsom forced bars to close again on June 28, followed by the removal of all indoor restaurant dining in Los Angeles and surrounding counties on July 1 to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the first surge.

Unless they could secure a food partner and had an outdoor patio area, LA bars fell further behind on rent and expenses. Places like Little Bar in Miracle Mile, Federal Bar in Long Beach, and Rage in West Hollywood closed forever. On the flip side, some bars found ways to stave off closure: Akbar in Silver Lake was on the verge of shutting its doors, but a December GoFundMe raised over $230,000 to preserve the historic queer bar.

All indicators surrounding bars and bartenders point to an industry constantly on the brink of disaster, leaving business owners and employees alike at the mercy of the next unpredictable event. And that uncertainty has come with a price. Many bartenders are fleeing their watering holes in search of refuge elsewhere, whether they find that in non-hospitality-related temporary positions, long-term careers, or opportunities in other states. Some are collecting unemployment and waiting for bars to reopen. Regardless, the recent shift will take a significant toll on Los Angeles bar culture, the severity of which is still unknown.

As Cody continues down the publishing path, he’s walking away from an income that falls between $75,000 and $100,000 per year. But that’s only when bars are open. Now, he’s leaving the industry in hopes of establishing a career that might be more sustainable and consistent in the long run. Meanwhile, Cody’s former coworker Suzy Silva, who also worked at the Pikey, started a watercolor painting business over the last year. She’ll return to bartending as soon as she can and even received her first vaccine earlier this month.

“I’ve been trying to drop resumes at places that [have been] doing outdoor stuff to get ahead of the rush,” Silva says. “I feel like I need to get ahead of the game. But where do I even go? What’s even open?”

A handful of bartenders are jumping deep into side hustles. Vay Su of République created a side business called Bear & Stone where he prepares small-batch cocktails for delivery. Living Room bartender Orly Nati is weeks away from launching her line of fashionable hats. Darwin Manahan pursued cocktail consulting and built an apron business. Manahan also made face masks at the beginning of the pandemic.

After losing three bartending jobs, at Gold Diggers, Melrose Umbrella Co., and Genghis Cohen, in one day last March, Josh Jancewicz applied for a job at the United States Postal Service the following month. He started the application process in case the pandemic lasted longer than predicted. Turns out, he was right, as LA County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer originally said the March 19 safer-at-home order would only last until April 19. Nearly a year later, he’s still a mail carrier, but is also working on a pop-up called Yancy’s Steaks and Pierogies, preparing cheesesteaks and pierogies the way his family used to make them back in Pennsylvania.

Marc Smith opened the Three Clubs on Vine, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard, 29 years ago. Throughout the pandemic, some of his best bartenders left. A few went back to their hometowns of New York or Minnesota, moved in with their parents, or are just figuring things out. “One took a sales job and is miserable, but he has to make ends meet,” says Smith. “They have families to support. I think they’ll come back. If they don’t, we’re forever lost.”

Smith is talking about the main reason that people go to bars. The Three Clubs is a carefully curated business, with regulars that keep it going. “I have a local bar that was people’s home,” says Smith. “We’re a place for misfit writers, producers, and play people who needed a home to drink [in]. What we lost was that central home. I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to get that back.”

Freshly poured martinis in glasses at the bar counter of Three Clubs on Hollywood with a bartender shaking a drink in the background and bottles on shelves.
Martinis at Three Clubs
Caroline Pardilla

Smith considers the Three Clubs a refuge where people can be themselves. His hand-selected bartenders know how to make their customers feel better about their successes, failures, and insecurities while working in Hollywood, accompanied by the right amount of attention and good drinks. “It’s the place to really let your hair down, and that’s where you can be your most vulnerable,” he says. “That’s when a really good bartender is a good vehicle for that. That’s the essence of a local bar. They are comfort zones for misfits like me.”

It’s a difficult concoction to create. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for a space like this: a place where thoughtful bartenders can nurture, engage, and comfort people with conversation and a drink. Ideally, bartenders warmly welcome customers, read their needs, then figure out their sweet spot of attentiveness, presence, and spirits knowledge. If all goes well, the imbibers will return and develop individual relationships with the bar itself and the people on both sides of the counter. That formula is what separates the professional bartenders from the ones phoning it in with an empty, one-dimensional “Can I get you something?”

“Los Angeles can be short on ‘sure things,’ so there’s a lot of comfort that comes when ‘sure things’ happen,” says Colin Baugh, who frequents Spring Street Bar in Downtown LA and whose public relations agency represents the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “When I walk into Spring Street and Keely’s working, I know I’ll get a smile, good conversation, and a great drink 100 percent of the time.”

Baugh sees bartenders as more than sources of smiles and good drinks. He worries about their future, but believes they hold a significant role in Los Angeles. But to him, these are not people who need condescension or pity. “They need a helluva lot of appreciation for what they bring to a city,” says Baugh. “These are culture shapers. Think about dates you’ve been on, think about all those instances where you might not know it, but that person behind the bar had a big hand in making that night what it was.”

One of those culture shapers was Josue Romero, also known as the Garnish Guy. Standing at 6 feet 3 inches, with a distinct beard, pristine outfits, and plentiful tattoos, Romero was one of the top bar influencers in the city, with more than 90,000 followers on Instagram. Romero passed away suddenly in last December, and his death was a shock to the Los Angeles bar community.

Drnxmyth’s bourbon sour cocktail in a bottle with an orange half and gold shakers.
Drnxmyth’s bourbon sour cocktail in a bottle
Courtesy of Drnxmyth

Lawrence Cisneros, the CEO of bottled cocktail company Drnxmyth, was friends with Romero. “When he served you a drink, the way he would explain it, he was passionate about everything,” he says. “He had this thing about garnishes. They were immaculate. He was extremely humble.”

Cisneros considers bartenders, especially Romero, ambassadors to Los Angeles. “Because he was so sought after, people were inviting him to things all the time,” shares Cisneros. “He would share about things happening throughout the city and have a litany of things to do and share that. He had a personal directory of everything going on in LA.”

Not all bartenders become influencers like Romero. This path requires the same qualities that Smith needs at Three Clubs. He judges his bartender’s success by how many people come visit them or how many regulars they can develop. Some choose to focus on gaining traction through individual relationships, while other innovative bartenders, like Matthew Biancaniello or Saeed “Hawk” House, may aim to draw crowds through inventive drinks and iconic, immediately recognizable personal branding, like Hawk’s immaculate mohawk.

Caroline Pardilla is a regular contributor to Eater LA and has been a prominent local bar writer since 2007. She knows spots like the Three Clubs, and misses bartenders at Big Bar, Lono, Musso & Frank, and the now-closed Here’s Looking At You. Pardilla gets misty-eyed thinking about the inability to sit at a bar with a great bartender.

Bar with stools and bottles in the background with hanging lamps at Bull and Butterfly in Playa Vista.
The bar at Bull and Butterfly
Wonho Frank Lee

“They expand your horizons. They introduce you to things you normally wouldn’t be privy to,” says Pardilla. “One of my favorite things to do before was to go to République and sit at the bar for dinner. I had to sit at the corner of the bar so my boyfriend and I could face each other. We’d ask for ice cream with amaro and the bartender would tell us where it was from with a story. I just loved that. It really makes me sad that they can’t open and they’re not given the ability to. It’s a huge oversight. What are we coming back to after all of this? What will happen to these places that are closed?”

As of March 15, 2021, things appear more positive for the hospitality world than they have in a year. Los Angeles’s vaccinations are up while coronavirus infection and death rates continue to fall. Last week, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan with a RESTAURANTS proposal to distribute $28.6 billion of assistance to bars, restaurants, food trucks, and street vendors. Limited-capacity indoor dining will return to Los Angeles County by March 16 for the first time since last summer. Breweries, wineries, and distilleries can now operate without food. But once again, the state’s health department order says that standalone bars must remain closed.

Because of this, additional bar closures are likely an unfortunate inevitability. What happens to the ones that survive? Three Clubs owner Smith believes bars owners have two troubling tasks in front of them: eliminate the stigma attached to bartending and simply hold out long enough until they can reopen.

“Bartending is a very fine profession, not some place on the way to being Robert Redford,” says Smith. “It shouldn’t be shameful to be a bartender, so we need to change that too. There’s also a comfort level of the bar, and I don’t know that newbie bartenders are going to be able to fill that gap to gather people and build that culture. We’re a 30-year-old bar. How did we get here? The people who anchored it for you, and that’s the barmen and -women.”

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