Downtown LA’s bar scene has gone from over-priced hotel bar and Staples Center drinks to cool and dimly lit mixology dens serving intricate cocktails. From mescal to craft beers, this neighborhood has turned the artisanal booze corner in its emergence over the last decade or so as a truly hip LA hood. So we pulled together a cheat sheet, culled by local booze hounds and some of LA’s best barkeeps, to help you cut to the chase and satisfy your thirst for an expertly made beverage.
Top Picks for You
Recommended Fodor’s Video
At this Library, there’s no shame in chasing your bedtime story with a cleverly-composed nightcap. Dim mood lighting, a wall full of books, and cushy drawing room furniture evoke a sophisticated private study, but the casual vibe draws a laidback after-work crowd. Sip one of the bar’s cool, literary-themed creations in the cozy corner near the fireplace, on one of the cushioned couches if you’re lucky—the small bar fills up quickly.
Drink of Choice: The Tequila Mockingbird—a brilliantly-named drink made with Arta Blanco, Canton, agave, sage, and Bundaberg ginger beer. Or go for the Wilde’s Sazerac—Old Overholt rye whiskey, simple syrup, and Peychaud’s bitters served in an absinthe-rinsed glass. And don’t forget to line your stomach. The Library’s food gets serious raves. Try the pork belly skewers; slightly crispy, smothered in spicy maple glaze.
With its stain glass-like display of colorful apothecary bottles framing the front windows and the cathedral arches behind the bar, Villain’s Tavern is a veritable shrine consecrated to the holy art of drinking. Enjoy craft beer or one of the fanciful comic book-inspired cocktails while catching live musical acts on the spacious, tented outdoor patio, or head upstairs to the balcony: the perfect spot to take in the dramatic ambience.
Drink of Choice: The Fatal Hour—Rittenhouse Rye 100, Amaro Nonino, chocolate bitters, and Luxardo cherry. Or The Poison Apple made with vodka, granny smith apple juice, and Aztec bitters served over shaved ice in a mason jar.
This handsome brick and mahogany bar with its International Wall of Whiskey might be geared towards fans of the single malt, but when it comes to cocktails, Seven Grand delivers. Explore its short-but-sweet house cocktail menu while relaxing in the shadow of the bar’s many deer heads, or while enjoying the live blues and jazz performances. The place gets packed during the weekends, so if you prefer to chill with your poison, go during the week.
Drink of Choice: The Zapotec—Antica, bourbon, and sherry with dashes of Cynar, chocolate mole bitters, and a mezcal rinse. Or a Sgt. Pepper Rob Roy, a traditional cocktail jazzed up with peppercorn bitters.
Grab a table at Cole’s—inventor of the French Dip sandwich—and, after dinner, head to the back of the restaurant, as if on your way to the restrooms. But instead of turning, walk straight up to that black, signless door and discover The Varnish—a tiny, pit-like cocktail lounge with tons of speakeasy appeal. Compared to Cole’s, The Varnish is new to the scene (Cole’s is practically a historic landmark, while The Varnish opened in 2009), but they serve some fantastic old school cocktails, and they’re done right here with time-honored recipes have been painstakingly researched. Don’t be fooled by the secretive entrance, though, the cat is out of the bag on this bar and it can fill up on weekends. We like a Wednesday or Thursday night here.
Drink of Choice: A classic Mai Tai; no umbrella, no pineapple wedge. Well worth the downtime. Or tell the bartender some of your likes and dislikes and let him or her whip up your new go-to drink.
Come for the sushi and sake; stay for the insanely inventive Asian fusion cocktails. Far Bar—housed in the historic Chop Suey building in Little Tokyo—is where Downtown LA meets the Far East. Completely renovated after the 1994 earthquake, the former Far East Chop Suey Café reopened in 2005 as a restaurant and bar. The cocktail menu is vast, divided into Far Bar and Far East sections; the former offers house drinks while the latter offers house twists on standards. The Far Bar cocktails are where things get serious, blending exotic ingredients (Dijon mustard and Zirbenz Stone Pine liqueur, for example) with Asian-inspired flavors (like yuzu and Asian pumpkin syrup).
Drink of Choice: The Godzilla made with Blade Gin, flamed rosemary, green Chartreuse, lemon and lime juice with simple syrup. Or the What’s Up Doc with Kraken spiced rum, Licor 43, walnut liqueur, carrot juice, and Tiki bitters.
No trip to Los Angeles is complete without crossing the proverbial border. Conveniently located across the street from Cole’s (and The Varnish) is Las Perlas, a Mexican-inspired bar with a massive selection of artisan-crafted mescal and tequila (yes, there’s a difference and, yes, there’s also a great selection of cerveza). Enjoy the small-batch liquor straight or in one of the bar’s intricate cocktails. Apart from great libations, there’s a pool table, jukebox, and psychedelic décor that’s somewhere between graffiti and quinceañera. The bar itself can get a bit rowdy, but if it gets to be too much, head to the patio overlooking Sixth Street (and the spillover from The Varnish).
Drink of Choice: The Poblano Escobar made with mescal, Pierre Ferrand dry orange curaçao, cumin, muddled poblano chili, fresh pineapple, lime, and agave. Or the Bloody Maria—a twist on the classic Bloody Mary, made with mezcal instead of vodka. It is absolutely delicioso.
Photo credits: Villain’s Tavern: Courtesy of Villains Tavern; The Varnish: Courtesy of peden+munk/213 Spirited Ventures, LLC; Las Perlas: Courtesy of 213 Spirited Ventures, LLC.; Far Bar courtesy of Far Bar; The Library courtesy of The Library; Seven Grand courtesy of courtesy of 213 Spirited Ventures, LLC