Cocktail culture comes to the forefront of LA dining

What’s the restaurant industry to do when all of the — sometimes literal — smoke and mirrors on the plate no longer impress jaded diners?

The answer, it seems, involves the cocktail. Once an afterthought of the dining experience, most restaurants now give cocktails as much care as meals.

At Bar Centro at José Andrés’ restaurant The Bazaar, drinks are poured tableside with chilly clouds of liquid nitrogen. And at Downtown’s craft-cocktail speakeasy The Varnish, the most popular drinks come not from a set-in-stone menu but from the mind of the bartender, who will specialize a cocktail to one’s preferences and the best ingredients on hand.

All across America, cities are seeing the rise of cocktail culture.

The James Beard Foundation began awarding restaurants with its highly coveted medals in 1991. But 2012 marks the first year a category has been added for the most outstanding bar program. The nominees hail from Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Excuse the rhyme, but it seems we’ve become a libation nation.

The invasion of craft cocktails on the L.A. restaurant scene is surprising only in that it hasn’t happened sooner. This is, after all, the city that pioneered — or at least popularized — a nationwide produce-driven food movement.

The cocktail craze has thrived by piggybacking off of that movement. Library Bar, at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel, bases its menu on ingredients found at farmer’s markets, and Lucques’ Moscow Margarita features tiny flecks of beet floating in the drink: Moscow in title, yes, but Southern California in spirit. Where else would one find roasted root vegetables in their tequila?

Across the street inside Comme Ça is 18A, one of the original bar programs to give the L.A. cocktail scene a boost. Cocktails requiring citrus, like the fruity Beachcomber, use only the freshest juices — so, of course, the 18A menu is seasonal.

With craft cocktails, every detail counts. As it should, if a drink costs more than an appetizer — and in some cases, a meal — then it should be crafted with as much, if not more, care.

Even the ice is important. Many bars ignore standard icemakers in favor of handcrafted options. At Drink, a Boston bar that helped jumpstart the cocktail revolution, bartenders chip away at ice blocks to create precise shapes and types of ice for each drink.

For most, though, it’s easier to use an ice ball, a perfect, frozen sphere that is known to stay whole rather than melt and water the drink down.

The Muji Silicon Ice Ball Maker, available on the company’s website, is one tool used to create great ice. The acquisition of such a machine, silly as it seems, can turn a cupboard of mismatched glasses and cheap alcohol into a veritable home bar.

For the college student, this purchase might seem impractical. But adding care to cocktails is nothing to scoff at. College students are wont to drink heavily; a simple ice ball maker will make this drinking, in some part, respectable.

Think of it this way: To respect a cocktail is to respect alcohol as well, an attitude from which many college students would do well to benefit.

And though this newfound cocktail culture can seem serious, it is, above all, about fun.

That’s why so many bars have looked to the past, taking Prohibition-era inspiration to create experiences that reflect that period’s sense of giddy rebellion.

The Varnish resides past an unassuming door in the back of Cole’s French Dip restaurant. And at a similar speakeasy-style bar in New York, Please Don’t Tell, one is required to walk through a phone booth to find the bar.

The book Vintage Cocktails, a spiral-bound ode to White Russians and Mai Tais, details cocktails at their most fun. It’s also an excellent reference for the home bar: The recipes are not too complicated, and the large, glossy pictures are as much a delight to look at as they are to replicate.

The book also features some lesser-known drinks to discover. The pousse-café, a drink of apricot brandy, grenadine, various cacao liquors and crème de menthe, requires careful pouring but results in a perfectly layered drink with stripe upon stripe of eye-popping red, green, blue and orange.

Fancy as it can appear, this new wave of conscientious drinking shouldn’t prompt an upturned nose at drinking from red Solo cups. That’s not really the point.

Cocktail culture exists as a celebration of alcohol and fresh ingredients, as an interest seriously fun and funnily serious. And that pomp doesn’t always have to mean multi-layered, multi-colored creations. It can be as simple as bringing together muddled mint, a favorite liquor and fresh juice, shaken not stirred.

As with all things in life, it’s not complication one should aim for. It’s taste.


Bernard Leed is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column “Amuse-Bouche” runs Wednesdays.