Boozy Boroughs: Downtown Los Angeles

Los Angeles is huge. There is no city that I've explored so much, yet feel like I've seen so little of. Yet its grandiosity and uniqueness is what sets it apart from other metropolitans around the world. Where else could you surf, explore a museum, take a hike, and ski (that's right, there are ski slopes less than 90 miles from L.A.), all in one day?

But while most days would have me talking about outdoor adventures or offbeat things to do in L.A., today marks the first of a series of posts called "Boozy Boroughs," where I highlight some of my favorite hoods around the world for exploring the drink culture of a city. Because I've always said that if you want to know about a destination, then as soon as you arrive there, find a local watering hole where the locals are gathering. What do New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles all have in common? They are among the most walkable U.S. cities, as named by Walk Score. Los Angeles comes in at #13, while downtown Los Angeles is the most walkable neighborhood in the city. With multiple subway stops, it's also one of the better neighborhoods for public transportation, which Los Angeles isn't exactly known for. This is important because parking in downtown Los Angeles can leave much to be desired, making a taxi, public transportation, or walking more advantageous, especially after you've had a couple drinks.

But you probably don't exactly think drinks and nightlife when you think of downtown Los Angeles. When most people who have traveled to L.A. think of downtown Los Angeles, they probably think of one of a couple things: L.A. Live (home to the Staples Center where the Lakers, Kings, and Clippers all play) and Skid Row, which is known as being the grittier side to L.A. But as GQ Magazine recently reported, there's a revitalization happening in downtown Los Angeles. There's more than meets the eye here - especially beyond the steps of L.A. Live - from Chinatown to Union Station (the largest in the Western U.S., and what I like to call the "Grand Central Station of Los Angeles") to Olvera Street's Mexican marketplace to Philippe the Original (one of two local establishments that claim to be home to the original French dip). But what stands above all this: downtown L.A.'s unique drink culture.

The fact that downtown Los Angeles is home to multiple breweries and a distillery (in operation for nearly 10 years) is evidence of the uniqueness of its drink culture, especially when the state of California has been so slow on the uptake with distilleries (new laws are now changing that). While Angel City Brewing (located in the Arts District) has been making beer for over 15 years, it's recently undergone a massive facelift after it was acquired by Alchemy & Science, whose founders are the same guys who started Magic Hat. Angel City Brewing has a long menu of beers, including a Belgian white, IPA, pilsner, and a bourbon barrel-aged lager, just to name a few. Visit the taproom Monday through Thursday between 4 and 7 p.m. for $1 off all pints. In addition to their brewery (which offers daily tours) and taproom, did I mention they also have a food truck? It's like an amusement park for adults.

Greenbar Collective Distillery Los Angeles
Greenbar Collective Distillery Los Angeles

A couple miles south of Angel City Brewing is a little known distillery, Greenbar, which is home to the largest portfolio of organic spirits. If you're not used to seeing many California distilleries, that's because there aren't many. While California is know for its beer and wine, strict laws have limited distilleries. However, new laws now allow distilleries to operate their own tasting rooms. While Greenbar has monthly tours and tastings, their new tasting room will be open late in the spring. Meanwhile, many of their spirits (which includes several vodkas, gin, tequila, whiskey, and rum) can be found around L.A. for half the price that many craft spirit bottles sell for.

Most of downtown L.A.'s best bars, however, are within a few blocks of one another, meaning you never have to even step foot into a car if you have a cocktail bar hopping itinerary. Even more, it's not the "L.A. crowd" you may be picturing. You won't find much in the way of six-inch heels and expensive cover charges in downtown Los Angeles (although if you want more of that ultra-sleek L.A. experience, then go to The Standard's Rooftop Bar, where you'll find everything from a chic pool to multiple bars to a beer garden to poolside waterbed pods).

Some of the renaissance happening in downtown Los Angeles can be attributed to the nightlife culture that 213 Nightlife has helped champion with their numerous bars. Some of the concepts seem pretentious, like Cana Rum Bar, a members-only rum bar (only $20, and free if you come on Friday night between 6-8 p.m.), or The Varnish, a speakeasy located in the back of restaurant, through what seems like a closet door. However, walk into any number of 213 Nightlife's bars, and you may forget that you're even in L.A.

Cole's Los Angeles
Cole's Los Angeles

While The Varnish is unique in and of itself, the history of its place of residence, Cole's, is just as interesting, if not more so. Cole's is something of a Los Angeles landmark, and one of the city's oldest public houses, dating back to the early 1900s. It, along with nearby Philippe the Original, claim to be the originators of the French dip sandwich. No matter how you slice it (<<see what I did there), both of their French dip sandwiches are delicious. However, Cole's stays open late (and has happy hour Monday through Friday from 4-7 p.m.), and serves an impressive menu of old-fashioned cocktails to boot. The Varnish a is small, charming, and cozy craft cocktail bar, best for a couple or a few friends, but no more than that. Once the host lets you in (it's a speakeasy; you can't just walk in and grab a table), you can choose from a menu of rotating cocktails, or if you're like me, tell the bartender what you like, and they'll whip up something personalized for you.

What's unique about many of 213 Nightlife's bars is that they offer exclusive types of experiences. At Cana Rum Bar, don't even think about ordering a vodka soda. You're getting a rum cocktail, and well, if you don't like rum, then you probably shouldn't go. At nearby Las Perlas, it's all tequila and mezcal, where momentarily, while playing pool or standing on the outdoor patio, you may feel like you're at a Mexico dive, rather than a craft cocktail bar in downtown Los Angeles. My drink of choice: the Poblano Escobar, featuring mezcal, dry orange curacao, cumin, muddle poblano chili, fresh pineapple, lime, and agave. If you're feeling adventurous, get the Los Perlas combo, featuring L.A.'s very own Golden Road hefeweizen with a shot of tequila.

If you're a whiskey guy like myself, then your next stop should be Seven Grand Whiskey Bar, which feels more like an old school hunting lodge smelling of rich mahogany that Ron Burgundy would certainly hang his hat at. Irish whiskey, check. Scotch, check. Whiskey flights, check. They even have their own whiskey society, which features monthly tastings and rare whiskies that you can't just order a shot of from your local dive (membership is $120 annually). Word is that they have a 55-year bottle of Macallan single malt scotch whiskey. However, the must-drink cocktail here is their mint julep, which you'll have to hand over some collateral for, but comes out looking more like a snow cone than a cocktail, featuring Woodford Reserve Bourbon, simple syrup, a large spring of mint, and shaved ice packed high in a cold-to-the-touch metal cup.

Other Notable Downtown Los Angeles Cocktail Bars

Library Bar. Library Bar is just that, a bar that feels like it's in an old school library. And yes, there are many real, leather-bound books. Unlike many of the bars listed above, Library Bar has a food menu that is served until 11 p.m., with a few of my own recommendations being the pork deviled eggs, burrata, and bacon-wrapped dates. Their cocktail menu features everything from old cocktails, like an Old Fashioned, to their own custom-made cocktails, like Poe's Reviver, featuring Germain-Robin Craft-Method Brandy, jasmin organic liqueur, lemon juice, and absinthe rinse.

The Edison. Ask any local where to go for a craft cocktail in downtown Los Angeles and one of the first places they'll likely mention will be The Edison, which is part prohibition-era bar, and part club, with everything from DJs spinning music to live bands to burlesque shows. However, while casual attire will get you into the bars mentioned above, it won't get you into The Edison. Entering The Edison feels something like a cross between walking into a scene of Dick Tracy and walking into a Mumford & Sons music video. So dress to impress. That means dress shoes and collared shirts fellas.

Ebanos Crossing. Ebanos Crossing is the newest craft cocktail bar in downtown Los Angeles, billing itself as the "ultimate cocktail dining experience." Paying homage to once forbidden spirits and the 1920s' smugglers age, Ebanos Crossing captures the essence of many of downtown L.A.'s craft cocktail bars: vintage, sexy, tasty. Their cocktails feature new takes on old classics, like the Ebanos Old Fashioned, featuring bacon-infused bourbon, but also their own custom cocktails, such as the Bear Flag Revolt, with rye whiskey, mezcal, vermouth, coffee liqueur, benedictine liqueur, and mole bitters.

Villain's Tavern. If Professor Moriarty, the Joker, and Vito Corleone all got together for a drink, this is where it would be. Located on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles in the Arts District, this is the closest thing to an open-air craft cocktail bar you'll find in the area. You'll find live music nightly, a small food menu (including my favorite L.A. delicacy, beer-battered fish tacos), shuffleboard, parking, which is hard to come by in downtown Los Angeles. My poison of choice: the Stan Lee, featuring hibiscus and jasmin tea infused gin, lemongrass, citrus, egg whites, and orange bitters.

One-Eyed Gypsy. If Villain's Tavern is like walking into a room of old school villains, then One-Eyed Gypsy is like walking into an old school circus. If you want a vintage bar that is just that (and none of that faux-vintage stuff), then look no further than One-Eyed Gypsy, which is housed in a building that is said to have been a continuously operating bar since the late 1800s. Now who said L.A doesn't have history? The bar is, however, said to be haunted. It also once housed a bootlegging operation. And was a brothel. And a biker bar. Also, a speakeasy. But, it's now legit (in the proper sense of the term). AND, it has Skee-Ball. Now that's my idea of a first date: a carnival-themed, haunted bar, that was formerly a brothel, and is now a watering hole with happy hour, corn dogs, tots, deep-fried Oreos and moon pies, funnel cakes. It's what you would get if you threw Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus into a blender with booze.

Far Bar. Last, but certainly not least, for a little bit of diversity, there's Far Bar, located just a couple blocks from the One-Eyed Gypsy in what's considered Little Tokyo. While you may not get the same theatrics as these other bars, what you do get is an array of craft beers, good cocktails and food, and great service, which can be hard to come by on a busy weekend night at a Los Angeles bar. Not to mention some great deals. While happy hour is 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, it's from 4 p.m. to close on Sunday and Monday. And, if you take the Metro, you get 10% off your bill.

New to Uber? Use the code, "travelingphilosopher", that Uber Los Angeles was gracious to offer to get a free ride (up to $20) on your first ride. That's the cost of an uberX ride from Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles. You don't want to be caught ridin' dirty.