Downtown LA's restaurant scene may be getting an insane amount of buzz right now, with some of the best restaurants in the city, but it's not just a teetotaler's paradise: The bar landscape is equally exciting. In addition to the scores of places focused on food first and drinks second, Downtown is also home to a massive amount of bona fide bars (many of them just opened over the last year) that can suit any mood. From whiskey dens and tiki bars to listening lounges and sports pubs, you won’t have to look far to find a vibe you’re into and a killer cocktail (or beer selection) to match.
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Dramatic drinks in a spectacular space We’d tell you to make a beeline here even if the place was serving the TGI Friday’s drink menu, just so you could take in the exquisite Parisian-style room housed in a century-old space with its illuminated stained glass ceiling, ornate metalwork and antique pieces throughout (check out the owl tap handles). It just so happens, though, that The Wolves is also creating some of the most innovative cocktails in town thanks to bar director Kevin Lee’s dedication to producing housemade everything including his obscure variations of bitters, liqueurs, vermouths and Amari along with ingredients like fermented purple yams, hops-infused whipped cream, and hinoki wood fragrance. And watching the uniform-clad bar staff practice prolonged pours out of shakers is so mesmerizing you’ll end up ordering another drink to keep your seat. (You’ll be seated by a hostess as there’s no standing at the bar allowed.) New addition Le Néant now offers a weekly omakase-style cocktail experience in the back bar by reservation only.
Revamped neighborhood bar with late-night food The new reincarnation of Westbound isn’t just in any neighborhood: It's in the uber-cool Arts District, and it’s got the requisite looks to match, yet it still manages to feel like a comfortable place to pop in for a drink. A roster of hospitality vets from spots like Everson Royce Bar, Salazar, and Walker Inn are behind the venue, crafting a cocktail menu with names winking at LA’s history and offerings ranging from sherry-based aperitivos and kicked-up classics to a variety of shot-and-a-beer combos, as well as bar food (think pork belly fries and a meatball sandwich) served until 1am most nights.
Subterranean spot with midcentury vibes Don Draper isn’t a real person -- but if he was and he lived in current-day LA, he’d totally come here. The subterranean cocktail den is done up in mid-century modern style with its gleaming woods, Danish-modern furniture, bookshelves filled with vintage games and goodies, and one very groovy yellow front door. The rotating 1950s-inspired cocktails menu -- with many drinks named after old Hollywood stars -- matches the space, and the pretty punch bowls are fun for a group (especially the boozy whisky-gin-Campari 77 Sunset Strip).
Arcade bar with patio and food trucks This five-year-old indoor-outdoor arcade bar continues to draw droves of players with its energetic scene and excellent layout. You’ll find games galore from the ‘80s and early ‘90s -- including the elusive cult favorite Burger Time -- in the main room with the bar, pinball machines in the other, an outdoor patio in between, food trucks out back, and DJs most nights. And forget any token nonsense; games run on good-old-fashioned quarters you can get from the change machine, and most cost 25 cents (the way God intended).
Simone’s swanky cocktail counterpart The glam front bar of already-acclaimed Simone, which just opened this fall, is the perfect place to order up a few of James Beard award-winning chef Jessica Largey’s lovely local produce-laced plates while imbibing in some equally impressive cocktails. Here, Iain McPherson (who opened Edinburgh’s beloved bar Panda & Sons) has put together a clever cocktail menu divided by era in a nod to the Arts District’s history, including wine-influenced drinks from the 1800s; citrus-forward versions from the early 1900s; artist-inspired cocktails centered around the influx of creative types in the 1970s (like the New Order, a smoky Mezcal and milk punch dramatically presented under glass); and an assortment of creative current-day concoctions. Oh, and listen up when you’re in the bathroom. Just do it.
Whiskey with a side of taxidermy This taxidermy-dotted whiskey bar was at the forefront of DTLA’s cocktail comeback when it was opened inside an old jewelry company building 11 years ago by Cedd Moses’ behemoth bar group 213 Hospitality (that’s since spawned Seven Grand offshoots in Austin, Denver, and San Diego). It’s got a manly hunting lodge feel plus pool tables, a massive whiskey selection and -- as of a few years ago -- an 18-seat Japanese whiskey-focused bar called Jackalope in back.
Stylish hidden gem See that groovy-looking breeze block that stands out on a non-descript stretch of Main Street? It’s just a hint at what’s inside this sexy and sophisticated cocktail bar from Rachel Thomas, former owner of The Must. Her eye for design comes through with golden lighting, bronze sculptures on the bar, wall art, and even a domed ceiling Thomas had custom-built for the venue. The cocktail program is under the direction of Laura Lindsay (formerly of Providence and Pasadena’s Bar 1886) who’s adept at doling out both classics and the bar's signature creations like the Prosecco-Lillet-and-gin-based Fizzy Drifting Link done with chamomile honey.
Listening lounge hidden inside a pizzeria This definitely sounds like something out of an episode of Portlandia: a “hi-fi bar” hidden in the back of a pizza place where you’re not allowed to speak above the level of the music, take photos, or post to social media, and where, on a recent evening, nothing but vinyl records by French musicians were played. But indeed, it’s a real-life lounge inspired by Japan’s listening bars, and the space does feel like it could be in Tokyo with its clean lines, light woods, and one beautiful and badass display of audio equipment and albums. There’s a good selection of cocktails and a nice beer and wine list too. The aforementioned pizzeria out front is the exemplary slice spot Lupetti, so make sure to grab a slice on your way out.
An over-the-top tiki extravaganza Sure, we love the little umbrellas, the xylophone-heavy music, and the part when they set the drinks on fire, but perhaps the best part of tiki bars is all the cool stuff the spaces are filled with -- and Pacific Seas delivers all day long on that front. You can stroll the room checking out old Polynesian tchotchkes, vintage art, tiki carvings, rattan furnishings, and even a wooden boat that doubles as a DJ booth. If you’re lucky you’ll catch some live music and maybe even a few hula dancers. Bonus: The place is housed within the multi-level choose-your-own adventure Clifton’s, so you’ll want to tour some of the many, many other bars that share the space and also wonder how in the world they got that big tree in there.
Wine bar with a focus on California varietals Owner David DeLuca (who’s also behind DTLA’s bar and live music venue Ham & Eggs) has curated a comprehensive (and reasonably priced) glass and bottle list of solid California wines from producers from the Central Coast on up at this low-key bar within Chinatown’s burgeoning Blossom Plaza development. DeLuca recently rolled out a house label Sonoma Chardonnay and Russian River Syrah and if you want to get all fancy, ask to peek at the list of higher-end (read: pricier) reserve bottles he’s got available. If you hate wine (despite agreeing to go to a place called LA Wine), you’ll happily find a good selection of canned beers along with a few drafts.
Beer, oysters, and games at Union Station It’s only taken 40 years, but the historic Fred Harvey space within Downtown’s transit hub finally has a new tenant. And its seems it’s been worth the wait for 213 Hospitality’s latest brainchild -- a brewery, bar, and restaurant inside an expansive Art Deco space with tiled walls, brass-and-walnut finishes, custom-made shuffleboard and pool tables. Head brewer Devon Randall, of Arts District Brewing Company, is handling the beer, while Hungry Cat chef David Lentz is at the helm of the extensive menu including a respectable raw bar selection (try the house-smoked mussels). The Streamliner, an adjacent cocktail bar in a much smaller space with its own entrance, is worth a stop too... as long as you’re there and all.
Glam pharmacy-themed NYC transplant There isn’t another cocktail spot within easy walking distance of the David Chang’s Chinatown palace Majordomo, so good thing this offshoot of the New York original that’s mere yards from the restaurant is well worth a stop. Staffers don pharmacist garb (the place was inspired by 19th century apothecaries) serve intricate cocktails made of infused spirits, fresh produce, and artful garnishes in Austrian crystal inside one of the LA’s most glam-feeling bars. You can also get in on one of its themed mixology classes, if you walk away inspired.
Insane views and cocktails, 71 stories up Though it's admittedly more of a fancy restaurant than a bar, the fact remains: It’s 71 stories above the ground, for God’s sake, so get on up there, head to the sky lounge and take in views of the city, the mountains, the everything, like you haven’t seen in... maybe ever. Oh, and order up a stalwart cocktail like a Moscow Mule or Sea Breeze (wait really?) or an original named after LA hoods. (the Echo Park with Pisco, Mezcal, aloe, and cinnamon seems like a fine choice.) Then keep looking out the window till it’s time to go.
Fun drinks and a lively patio scene People love E.R.B. for a lot of reasons, including the cool neighborhoody vibe; the exciting drink list filled with barrel-aged cocktails, frozen concoctions, and Micheladas laced with house-smoked chili; the nice beer selection; and the upscale bar food. What might be the biggest draw of all, though, is its expansive back patio with ample seating, bistro lights, greenery, and a cool late-night crowd. Hit the bar up on a Monday for margaritas by the pitcher, Mezcal flights, and a heaping plate of Monday-only nachos for $9.
A legit, throwback dive bar Times have changed Downtown, and gentrification -- along with $14 cocktails -- is everywhere you turn. If you need a break and just want a pint of beer or a vodka soda in a regular old water glass with a red straw, surrounded by a lot of handwritten signs on the wall and one of those old-fashioned cash registers, this is your place. There's a jukebox, they don’t have a website, and despite announcing “dining” out front, there’s no food to be found. So you know it’s the real deal.
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Lizbeth Scordo is a food and lifestyle writer who takes the train Downtown all the time and can barely ever get a seat, so stop saying nobody’s using that thing. Follow her transit adventures on Instagram @modlizbeth and Twitter @lalizbeth.