Last Friday, a friend of mine invited me to join her at a bar downtown. She was going there to meet some friends, but what most excited me was that it was a place I’d never been to before, which means that it was undoubtedly a great bar.
Perhaps I should provide a bit of explanation for some of you non-SoCal folk. In Los Angeles, the only great bars are the ones you’ve never been to. Everyone talks about how great the drinking spots are in LA, but I’m yet to meet someone who lives here that will admit to having been to a truly great bar. Most lounges in the city seem to be pretty average. I know a few people who confess to having visited a good bar, but a great one? Well, no one I know has found one yet. We know they’re out there because so many pedigreed authors and journalists have espoused on the libationary excellence to be found atop the wooden counters of dozens of Hollywood, downtown, West Side and Silverlake watering holes. And if someone writes something, it’s automatically true. Everyone knows that. Therefore, there must be great bars in LA. The problem is clearly that we just haven’t yet been to them.
One of these days, this is going to change. There has been many a drive made to a hot, buzzed-about new joint where I envisioned the calls I would make to my friends upon first setting foot inside and discovering that I was at last basking in the glow of greatness.
“Hey Greg, it’s happened.”
“Dammit, Tim. There’s nothing I can do for you. Now, I’m gonna hang up, and you call the cops—”
“No, not that. I found it. I found a great bar.”
“Is this a joke?”
“No, it’s not. This place is great.”
“How many have you had? You’re not drinking Long Islands again, are you? Last time you did that, you convinced yourself that the lounge at Denny’s was the eighth wonder of the world.”
“I’m not at Denny’s and I’m not drunk. I just sat down with a vodka tonic and after the first sip, the only word I could think of to describe the experience was ‘great.’”
“Is that Nick Drake I hear in the background?”
“Sure is. They just finished playing Moxy Fruvous.”
“How long did it take to get the drink?”
“A few minutes.”
“And what kind of vodka did they use? Not Grey Goose, was it?”
“Shit. Okay, I’m on my way. Don’t you dare move, and if I get there and I don’t see at least one woman at the bar drinking actual beer, you’re buying my damn drinks.”
“I was joined by two just before I called you.”
“I’ll be there in time to buy the next round.”
I’ve imagined having conversations like this too many times to recollect, but I’ve never actually had one. Rather, I find I’ve arrived at my destination only to discover that they have an alt-rock band playing or limit their tables to people ordering food or bottle service. Or that their selection of beer consists of Budweiser and a collection of imports of which few besides a BevMo specialty buyer would even be the least bit familiar.
So when my friend invited me to a new bar this weekend, I knew I was going to a great spot. The reviews were promising. The photos looked intriguing. It was surrounded by warehouses, lofts and neglected studio space, so the atmosphere was encouraging. I was prepared, for the first time since I became of age, to have a truly great night of drinking in LA.
And I came damn close. The bar was mid-sized and open-air, with much of the seating and mingling areas actually outside. This works well for LA because pretension tends to thrive in dark, enclosed spaces. It’s hard to seem full of yourself when you’re at risk of being shit on by a pigeon at any moment. Also, the bar served most of their drinks in mason jars, which are about as suave to sip from as a bed pan. Perhaps in other cities this would be a negative, but in LA, this is medicine that is very much needed. The crowd was a nice mix and seemed pretty friendly, and best of all, the band was miked at a level that didn’t require you to conduct your conversations in semaphore.
The place even looked pretty snazzy. Part Victorian, part speakeasy, part Artemis Gordon dream house, it was hard not to feel pretty charmed by the whole thing. And charmed takes you a good part of the way to great. In fact, if I’d stuck to one of my usual drinks, I may very well have experienced greatness. Unfortunately, emboldened by the old-time bluegrass the band was playing and perhaps driven by an eagerness to put this promising juke joint to the ultimate after-hours test, I decided to try one of their specialty drinks.
I quickly scanned their drink menu, completely clueless as to what any of them were. Asking the bartender was out of the question. If you have to ask what’s in your drink, then as a patron you become lame and a great bar doesn’t have lame patrons. I didn’t want to find myself as the reason this promising bar missed the mark, so I decided to wing it and order the drink that sounded most appropriate for me. And for a comic book editor, there was really only one appropriate drink.
I almost missed it at first because it was the very last drink on the menu, and when I saw it, I had to scratch my head since it seemed thematically at odds with the historic kitsch the place was clearly aiming for.
The Stan Lee.
I had to go with Stan the Man. No question or doubt about it. For a comic book professional and lifelong Southern Californian, nothing could be better than sipping a drink called the Stan Lee in the company of cool friends in a charming cocktail house that looked like something from “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” This could not only be my first great LA bar experience – it could be the perfect LA bar experience.
My drink decision made, I quickly pushed my way to the bar and ordered it. I knew something was off the minute I saw the glass. As I mentioned, most drinks in this place were served in mason jars. So when I saw him plink down the petite stemmed glass more appropriate for drinking dessert wine at a yacht club, I knew we were heading for trouble. I was so focused on the damn glass that I missed half of what went into the drink. I looked up in just enough time to see him pouring in what looked like three shots worth of grenadine.
Well, maybe it’ll look blood red, I thought to myself. Perhaps they’ll top it with Blue Curacao and get a classic Spider-Man thing going with it. But looking at that dainty glass, I knew there was no way in hell they could pull it off.
The shaker was capped, the bartender gave it a quick shake and cracked it open, and out it came.
Goddammit. Why the hell is a drink that’s called the Stan Lee colored pink? Not a single key character in the Marvel universe is pink. I suppose it’s possible that Stan the Man is partial to pink drinks, but I can’t quite picture that, and if I can’t picture something, it’s not true. Everyone knows that.
With a flick of his wrist, the bartender dropped something in the glass. Something that looked like a candied raspberry.
“You’re kidding me. It looks like something my four-year-old niece would serve at a tea party. I could probably down that thing in half a gulp.”
“Sorry, man. But that’s the Stan Lee.”
I guess that explains why I’ve always been more of a DC guy. I paid the bartender, who looked a lot less cool with a pink drink in front of him, then snatched up the tiny glass, taking great care to mutter that it wasn’t for me as I walked away from the bar. I think I noticed a couple of girls in vests whispering to each other and pointing as I walked away.
Now, it had taken me about ten minutes to order my drink, so if I returned to my friend without a cocktail in hand, it would have required a story about why I decided not to order one when I had left her for the sole purpose of doing so. I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired at the moment, so downing the drink and returning to her empty handed save for a clever story was out of the question. Making matters worse was that this particular friend of mine also seems to find my enjoyment of tiki drinks to be the most hilarious thing since Steve Martin sang about King Tut on Saturday Night Live. I knew as soon as she saw me walking up with a pink drink that I’d never hear the end of it.
No sooner did I spot her in the crowd than I caught her eyeing my drink. Instinctively, I responded defensively.
“Don’t ask me what I’m drinking.”
“What the hell is that thing?”
“It’s called the Stan Lee. Does this look like it would have anything to do with Stan Lee to you? It’s pink.”
“Put an umbrella in it and you should be right at home.”
“I think I’m sticking with beer after this.”
And with that, the bar fell from great to good. For you should never have to stick to beer at a great bar.
But it’s okay. The rest of the evening was actually very enjoyable despite my sour note at the bar. The Stan Lee was consumed quickly, and it didn’t take long for me to regain my composure after ordering something that looked like a wine glass full of Strawberry Quik. And while I did notice quite a few obscure imports on tap, they had Newcastle, which is like the full house of bar beers. It’s hard to go wrong with it. I wonder how pleasant the outdoor experience may be in winter when rain and cold temperatures set in, but for a Friday night in autumn, this little spot was all right. Hell, it was better than all right. It really was good, and a good bar is pretty decent for LA. In fact, a night spent at a good bar in LA is about as great as it gets.