Los Angeles is a city built on contradictions. While it’s famous for its international stars, miles of beaches and devotion to over-the-top opulence, it also boasts an equally impressive network of gritty dive bars.
These are not the places where you’ll find the glitterati or the Insta-fluencers—the parade of people trying hard to look like they’ve never tried hard in their lives. No craft cocktails or sleek decor here; no scene, no dress code. These watering holes are practically as old as LA itself and attract a range of regulars.
As California is now in the midst of a serious lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, these establishments are now closed and are the ones I miss most and can’t wait to get back to.
When I was writing my novel, The Lady Upstairs, a feminist noir thriller about women blackmailing LA’s wealthiest and most morally bankrupt men, I spent a lot of time in dive bars. Mostly as research. (Mostly.) Where else can the antiheroes of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, among others, find a respite from all that optimistic sunshine? Slither into one of these joints, and you can practically feel the ghosts of fedora-wearing private investigators and fast-talking femme fatales. Cool, dark dive bars offer the chiaroscuro that makes Los Angeles such a fertile breeding ground for the genre.
While it will be some time before I can go out for a drink, these are the watering holes I plan to visit first.
There’s a plethora of kitschy-cool tiki bars in Los Angeles. All of these take a scene-y spin on mid-century tropes and update them for the 21st century. It’s as if the bartenders are giving you a wink-wink isn’t this ridiculous artifice letting patrons know they’re in on the joke, so everyone can just relax and enjoy their not-too-sweet Mai Tai.
Not so at the Purple Orchid.
Located in El Segundo, a city-suburb of west Los Angeles just south of LAX that reads like the love child between Andy Griffith’s Mayberry and the well laid-out business parks of Silicon Valley, the Purple Orchid is walking distance from both a movie theater that plays 1950s era Sci-Fi classics on Sundays and the headquarters of Raytheon defense contracting.
With specialty cocktails like the Curious George, which is heavy on both rum and banana (picture a liquid sugar hangover eight ounces deep), and a range of “bowl” style and flaming drinks, the Purple Orchid is refreshingly unpretentious in its love for all things typically tiki. It’s also the setting for more than one crucial scene in The Lady Upstairs. I picked it because the history of tiki cocktails is littered with noirish nuggets and because I think you can make the case that tiki bars are a bit like femme fatales themselves—gorgeous to look at and likely to leave you with a lot of regrets in the morning.
The Prince of Whales, located a few blocks off the ocean and only a few miles from LAX, smells like the inside of an aquarium that hasn’t been cleaned regularly. The clientele is almost evenly split between daytime regulars who start the hard work of pickling themselves at 10 AM and popped-collar Loyola Marymount University students testing their freshly minted IDs. It’s a big, beautiful blue whale of a building, home to a karaoke stage, a quadrangle of sports-blaring televisions and an expansive back patio that sees a variety of table tennis experts who have logged an improbable number of hours perfecting their backhand.
You may have heard of other bars on this list, but I’m almost positive the Prince of Whales has never made any list for bars to visit in Los Angeles and therein lies its charm. It’s located in my neighborhood (and the neighborhood where the main character in The Lady Upstairs also lives), Playa del Rey—Los Angeles’ forgotten beach town. It’s a corner of the city where mom-and-pop restaurants can still somehow afford beach-front property and features a charming little cluster of neon lights and beach bums resembling Thomas Pynchon characters.
At the Prince of Whales, the drinks are cheap and strong. If you start your night at the Prince of Whales, you’re in trouble. If you end the night there, you’re doing it right.
The wood paneling of the HMS Bounty, not updated since the bar opened in 1962, now looks a bit out of place in Koreatown, a chic and diverse neighborhood in the heart of Los Angeles.
The HMS Bounty is attached to the Gaylord Apartments, once dubbed “one of the largest and most pretentious apartment houses in the country” by The Los Angeles Times. It made a brief cameo in Mad Men, but that high-profile publicity hasn’t done anything to change the unpretentious charm of the place, which offers “food & grog” as per the banner outside.
I don’t remember any specialty cocktails from the HMS Bounty; I barely remember the under-$10 double Gin & Tonics; but I do remember that the sweaty maroon carpet swayed under my feet like a real-live ship as I stumbled my way up to the bar to pay my shockingly cheap tab one adventurous evening.
The ghost of Raymond Chandler greets you at the door of this storied Hollywood establishment. While it’s not a dive bar per se, but really a historic restaurant with an amazing and noirish bar, I felt I still had to include it on this list
Musso & Frank opened in 1919 and is the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles. Along with Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker and many others ate and drank here. From the cocktail menu springs lucrative inspiration—or so writers like Charles Bukowski seemed to hope, as he’s credited with the tradition of looking for just the right opening hook to a novel in the bottom of a Musso & Frank Gimlet.