LA is one of the country’s best places to drink and, contrary to what you might think, it’s not all Hollywood hotspots, impossible-to-get-into clubs and oceanfront scenes (although those places certainly do exist). To learn more about what makes LA’s cocktail culture tick, we talked to Dave Fernie, general manager of subterranean dance-party-slash-cocktail-lounge Honeycut , and director of operations at Proprietors LLC and 213 Hospitality (the bar group behind esteemed bars like Bar Clacson, The Normandie Club and Seven Grand, to name a few). Here’s everything people get wrong about drinking in Los Angeles (and why you should get to the City of Angels immediately).
Driving Is a Handicap
LA used to have a drunk driving problem, in that no one could get drunk because everyone had to drive. With drinking destinations spread out across the horizontal metropolis, there was no way to go from bar to bar aside from driving or prohibitively expensive cabs. Whereas New Yorkers or San Franciscans could depend on public transit, LA was severely lacking in tippler-friendly transportation. That’s changed.
“Now with Lyft and Uber and other ridesharing apps, everything is basically 15 minutes away. And you don’t have to worry about parking,” Fernie says. “That really opened up the world of LA drinking for a lot of people. You can Lyft all the way from downtown to Venice for the cost of one valet parking now.”
LA Is Behind the Times
“There’s this misconception about LA that it’s trailing behind some of the other big drinking cities when it comes to elevated cocktail drinking experiences,” Fernie says. “There’s not some of the pomp and circumstance associated with the drinking institutions of the Northeast that are so widely regarded. But if you want that pre-Prohibition vibe with suspenders and vests, you can certainly get that at places like The Varnish and cocktails as great as any you’ll have at Attaboy.”
LA Bars Are All Fussy and Fancy
Fernie is a big proponent of the loosened-up bar culture that has recently swept away some of the speakeasy rigidity, a laid back vibe he says you can find in a lot of LA bars. ”There are great places like Honeycut, The Normandie Club, Slipper Clutch and Bar Clacson, where you can just go in and have a really nice cocktail, and there’s no pretense about it,” he says. “Just come in, have a drink, have fun.”
Nowhere is that more obvious than in LA’s tiki bars. Polynesian drinking has exploded into new cities lately, as rum enjoys its turn in the public spotlight, but tiki culture is inexorably intertwined with Los Angeles history. While original institutions from the ‘40s like Trader Vic’s may no longer exist there, lesser known contemporaries like Damon’s in Glendale and second-wave tiki bars like Tiki Ti (established in 1961) and The Tonga Hut (1958) are equally important to tropical drink culture. You can even get your fill of Pacific cocktails after a day at Disney if you hit up Trader Sam’s just outside the park.
There Are Only a Couple of Good Bar Neighborhoods
Downtown LA, which Honeycut calls home, has been inundated by quality cocktail bars over the past couple of years. While bars are cramming themselves in among LA’s few skyscrapers, they’re also expanding to surrounding neighborhoods and filling in once barren neighborhoods with drinking spots.
“You’re starting to see a lot of good programs pop up on the East Side, especially if you’re talking about that not-fussy bar situation—places in Echo Park, Silverlake, even further east in Highland Park,” Fernie says. Meanwhile, drinking holes are popping up in the west as well. “For three to four years now, people have started to connect the dots between Downtown and Venice. There used to be this vast no-man’s land that would include everything from K-Town to Culver City.”
LA Has No History
LA is surely on the younger end of the age spectrum compared to East Coast metropolises like New York and Boston, where bars can easily date back over a century, but that doesn’t mean history isn’t important to Los Angeles drinkers. LA cocktail dens run the gamut in style and age, with innovative, high-end cocktail labs sitting alongside down and dirty dives. Fernie points to the HMS Bounty in K-Town: “It’s this old school dive where there are plaques by every bar stool for guys who always sat there. They’re either now deceased or are just legends at that place. That bar still exists on the same block as brand new food options and brand new cocktail options.”
There’s No Place to Go After the Bars Close
Fernie loves cities like Portland, Oregon, where every bar seems to offer great eats in addition to killer cocktails, so drinkers needn’t abandon their bar stools to find sustenance. But in LA many restaurants close early, and the siren call of drunchies leaves many drinkers wandering the nocturnal wastes after last call. While we’re certainly in favor of more drunk food options, Fernie does point out that the limited availability of late night eats creates a sort of insomniac community, as drinkers from across the city coalesce around certain restaurant hubs—24-hour joints like Pacific Dining Car and Fernie’s own beloved Canter’s Deli.
“If you go out drinking and you end up at Canter’s, chances are you’re in there with somebody you were at a bar with at some point that night,” he says. “Half the time you’ll probably recognize each other. When we first opened Honeycut, after a long Saturday night shift we’d go get matzoh ball soup at Canter’s at like four in the morning, and we’d be like, ‘Those people were in Honeycut. And those people were in Honeycut!’”
It’s Always Sunny, So Everyone’s Always Day Drinking at Some Beach Bar
“In LA the fun happens when the sun goes down,” Fernie says. With iconic, perfect weather nearly 365 days a year, the city ironically lacks the daytime drinking culture that exists in New York or San Fran. Nor is there a significant outdoor bar culture. Fernie postulates that the permanent sunshine has spoiled Angelenos. “If the sun is mildly out and it’s over 60 degrees in New York, you better believe every place that has a patio is f*cking packed. But in LA, every day is the perfect day, and people take it for granted.” One of the main events in day drinking elsewhere, boozy brunch, hasn’t taken hold either. “People are still transitioning out of LA being a massive driving city, so the idea of getting a little day tipsy is counterintuitive to that,” Fernie says. “As we develop better access to public transit and people make the switch to ridesharing, I think we’re starting to move more into that. There are certainly places to engage in that kind of behavior but there just isn’t the culture to support it on a large scale.”
There is one exception to this day drinking aversion: game days. When the Dodgers are playing, spots like El Compadre, “the last little bar you hit before you walk into the stadium,” The Short Stop and the Gold Room supply fans with slushy Margaritas, beers and cheap grub.