From macrobiotic fast food and detoxifying juice cleanses to daily workouts in Runyon Canyon, Los Angeles is famous for its unwavering, borderline obsessive dedication to leading a thoroughly healthy lifestyle.
But buried just below the mounds of raw kale salad and the gallons of hemp milk lies another layer of the city’s intricate culture: a rich cocktail and bar heritage. (You can’t have a yin without a yang, right?)
While critics maintain that the City of Angels is too focused on style and not focused enough on substance, that accusation doesn’t hold up when it comes to L.A.’s watering holes. You will never thirst in vain for a well-made drink in La La Land, whether it is a tropical creation at La Descarga or a modern concoction at Eveleigh.
Downtown is now where much of the action is happening. The area currently boasts a list of excellent spots serving up a range of delicious craft cocktails featuring fresh fruit juices, jumbo ice cubes and obscure spirits. That includes the meticulously stirred and furiously cold Martinis at The Varnish, which are some of the best I’ve ever had.
The city’s current cocktail scene—no matter how new and novel it feels—is actually the product of a long line of famed Angelino bartenders and bars.
Hollywood, after all, is where Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt (aka Donn Beach, aka Don the Beachcomber) kicked off the tiki trend in 1933 when he opened his eponymous establishment in an old tailor shop. His rum-based elixirs were a sensation and gave rise to Trader Vic and an army of other copycats around the country who offered similarly colorful and multi-ingredient drinks.
While a paparazzi photo of a celeb enjoying a new concoction at a hip bar can catapult both to popularity, where and what stars sip has always been big news.
Don the Beachcomber, according to Wayne Curtis’ excellent book, And a Bottle of Rum, “proved irresistible to Los Angeles movers and shakers,” including Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes.
A few years later, at the Cock ‘n’ Bull on Sunset Boulevard, another classic cocktail was created: the Moscow Mule. The refreshing mix of vodka, lime juice and ginger beer was used as a vehicle by Smirnoff to introduce its colorless, odorless and supposedly tasteless spirit to America’s whiskey crazed drinkers.
It worked. The simple but delicious tipple helped propel the clear spirit to its top sales spot, which it still maintains today. And after years of obscurity you can now find the Moscow Mule served once again in bars across the country. Kitchenware stores are even selling sets of the cocktail’s traditional copper mugs.
Another famous spot for Hollywood royalty was the Brown Derby, which was opened by Herb K. Somborn on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926.
Its iconic bowler-hat shape made it a landmark sought out by celebrities and tourists alike. It was open 24 hours a day and offered such classics as French onion soup, pot roast and its signature Cobb salad, which, according to press reports, was created by the Brown Derby’s manager and later owner Robert Cobb.
The establishment was immortalized with, of course, the Brown Derby cocktail, an unusual but delicious mix of American whiskey, grapefruit juice and a touch of honey. While the Brown Derby is long gone, its namesake drink still shows up occasionally on bar menus today. It would, of course, pair perfectly with a newly won Academy Award.