Los Angeles’ drinking culture carries an unfortunate stereotype. In the eyes of many, it involves exclusive Hollywood clubs, overpriced champagne and essentially the same variations on vodka and soda.
But to simply look at it — and indulge — from that mindset ignores the vibrant cocktail and craft drink scene that has sprung up in various locales around the city.
Los Angeles used to have a strong cocktail presence: The Tiki culture bloomed in the 1950s, not to mention the martinis and Gibsons that flew around like crazy during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In the past few decades, however, the L.A. cocktail scene has given way to nightclubs where quickly made, trendier drinks are celebrated.
Like the city itself, Los Angeles’ drinking scene has had a resurgence from its less flashy roots. Spurred by a national cocktail revival and filtered through Los Angeles’ love of experimentation and reinvention, there are now dozens of places around the city to grab a craft beer or an artisan cocktail.
This also means college students in Los Angeles can widen their palate beyond traditional fare.
If beer is your drink of choice, there are alehouses and pubs scattered across Los Angeles to help you out. If you’re near the Arts District, visit Little Bear, a new Belgian pub with a menu that goes deep into Belgium’s breweries — and not just the more familiar brew names like Chimay.
On the west side, Smith House in Santa Monica has more than 150 beers to choose from and a great selection of flights if you want to sample more than one brew.
If you’re in Hollywood, ignore the velvet rope clubs and check out some cheaper, tastier alternatives. The Library Bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel might seem like an odd choice, but it puts a great spin on drinks. Since the menu focuses entirely on fresh ingredients, its selection of ingredients changes from season to season.
Also in Hollywood is Harvard & Stone. The vibe and location are hipster, but the drinks make up for any misgivings you might have. It even features an “R&D” bar in the back, where bartenders create unique spins on a rotating set of spirits.
Though it’s convenient to get a great drink everywhere across the city, the best places to imbibe are located Downtown. Packed together in a few city blocks — and wonderfully close to USC — these bars are great places to find fresh takes on traditional alcohol pairings, as well as revivals of forgotten standards.
If you’re looking for a mix of classic cocktails, a great beer selection and moderate prices, Cole’s on Sixth and Main streets is the place to go. It’s focused on classic cocktails from the pre- and early post-Prohibition era with an excellent menu of craft beers, drinks and a rotating assortment of specialty cocktails. The bar is small but worth it for the relaxed atmosphere and friendly bartenders.
And if you don’t mind paying a little extra, walk to the back of Cole’s and visit The Varnish. It’s a speakeasy with some of the most talented bartenders in the city. The alcohol catalog is extensive, and the bartenders’ knowledge even more so. If you’re new to drinking, try the “bartender’s choice,” where they’ll put together a cocktail based on a few questions about your flavor preferences. Crowds can pick up on the weekend, so try to make it there before 9:30 p.m. to get a table.
One of the amazing things about the L.A. drinking scene is its diversity. It’s easy to go from one bar specializing in drinks made from only locally grown, seasonal ingredients, to an alehouse that only imports European beers.
When Downtown, one can walk out of the mezcal-focused Las Perlas, walk a few blocks and find the whiskey bar Seven Grand. Each place has its own specialties and style, so there are endless possibilities in what you can have. If you’re new to cocktails, or trying to find different flavors, go out and explore the different bars the city has to offer.
And if you’re looking for a place to get a good meal alongside a drink, try Bar|Kitchen at Eighth and Flower streets.
It’s a bit quieter than places like Cole’s and offers a bit more space to breathe and enjoy your drink. If nothing else, consider the fact that many bartenders from other establishments can often be found indulging at the bar there.
Craft bars might not outnumber nightclubs, but the effort and creativity put into each drink menu easily overtakes the latter. Why go for low-quality drinks when we live in a city with a booming cocktail scene?