Just in time for Dry (or Damp) January, the first-ever completely non-alcoholic cocktail lounge in Los Angeles opens tonight in a historic Chinatown space. Stay Zero Proof from co-founders Stacey Mann and Summer Phoenix goes into former punk rock venue Hong Kong Cafe, which had been unoccupied for years before the landlord was connected with Mann and Phoenix for this project. The idea behind Stay was to provide as much of the elements of a cocktail lounge experience, from the ambience to a full bar counter, but without any alcoholic beverages.
“There’s a lot of published literature that no amount of alcohol is good for you,” says Phoenix, who has acted in TV and film before turning to an interior design career in the decade. “A lot of the fun you attribute to alcohol often has to do with the people you’re with, the environment, the ritual around imbibing together. We’re offering all those things without the alcohol,” says Phoenix.
“We saw the personal need for sophisticated grownups that don’t drink to still be a part of a social scene, with a viable alternative to alcohol being the focus — and still have crazy good times,” says Mann, who sees this lounge as the universe saying it was time to go into this kind of venture. “The landlord wrote us a beautiful letter and said, ‘You’re the people to transform this space.’” Mann continues.
The partners raised about half of what they needed from mostly friends and family and still opened under budget and on time, something of a rarity. It might’ve helped that Stay didn’t need an ABC license, but the space exudes all of the sexy, vibey decor of a top-flight cocktail experience, from the eye-catching Chinese ceiling to the lightbox bar illumination.
Bartender Derek Brown, who recently published Mindful Mixology about low-ABV and non-alcoholic cocktails, designed the menu around 12 specific drinks named for each of the Chinese zodiac signs. The Ox uses Kentucky 74 bourbon alternative with aperitif rosso, aromatic bitters, smoke, and ginger syrup for a striking presentation at the bar. The Rabbit mixes elements of an Old Fashioned with Lyre’s Highland Malt, orange and chocolate mole bitters, ginger syrup and cherry while the Monkey blends Caleño dark & zesty with cola and aromatic bitters for a take on rum and coke.
A set of non-alcoholic wine or wine alternatives includes sparkling, riesling, and red grape options while two beers round out the non-alcoholic drinks. There are also espresso drinks for those who want a caffeine kick. As for snacks, Kitchen Mouse chef Erica Daking designed three plant-based dishes of spicy maple sesame nuts, marinated olives, and root vegetable and lotus chips with makrut lime aioli.
Given both of their design backgrounds, Phoenix with interiors and Mann on Hollywood sets, they were both keen on preserving as much as possible to allow the venue to feel lived in Chinatown. “We’re obsessed with this space, which was built in 1939 and renovated in the early 1960s. We kept everything as original as we could. We just added and didn’t take away. 99 percent of what we use is vintage and reused,” says Phoenix. With the bar, the duo wanted it to be the brightest place in the space, loving the idea of illumination in an otherwise very dark room.
As for its opening in Chinatown, a neighborhood under immense economic pressures from gentrification and change, both Phoenix and Mann felt it was necessary to engage with fellow business owners and the community. “The process has been really anointed and coming with motivations of pure goodness,” says Phoenix. “They told us, please help us bring life back to this area, please bring people here. We’ve spoken with every one of our neighbors. We see them every morning and we’ve been so welcomed.”
Stay will serve from Thursday to Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight at 425 Gin Ling Way, Los Angeles, CA, 90012.