Los Angeles’ cocktail culture has a long and heady history. From the glamorous party scene of Hollywood’s Golden Age when stars like Mae West, Cary Grant and John Wayne lived the dream to the rise of Polynesian-themed tiki bars and the recent revival of classic cocktail lounges, the City of Angels has a drink for everyone. With the Academy Awards just around the corner, there’s no better time to celebrate the city’s boozy past. Some of the city’s oldest bars have been open since the turn of the 20th century and every one of them has a story – or two – to tell.
Located in the Chateau Marmont hotel, Bar Marmont has been a celebrity magnet for years. The Chateau opened 1929, modeled on Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. From the start, the opulent, secluded location seemed to encourage celebrities to misbehave. In A. M. Holmes’ book Los Angeles, People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill, the author recounts how studio executive Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures gruffly advised young William Holden and Glenn Ford: “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” Get in trouble they, and other movie stars, did. James Dean supposedly jumped out of a window while auditioning for “Rebel without a Cause”. Howard Hughes used to rent a penthouse and spy on the bathing beauties poolside. Lindsey Lohan was banned from the hotel after racking up a $46,000 room bill. And, perhaps the best known and most tragic event, John Belushi overdosed there. As to what you should order, at the Bar Marmont, it’s less about what you drink and more about who you see.
The aptly named Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard started its life as a speakeasy in 1930, while the country was still in the grips of prohibition. Its covert days came to an end in 1934 when it opened as a legal bar. Howard Hughes bought the neighboring Pantages Theater in 1949 and from that year until 1954, the Pantages played host to the Academy Awards with the Frolic Room enjoying the after-party spill over. Sinatra and Judy Garland were regulars, but the Frolic Room is also gruesomely remembered as the last place Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia, was seen alive before her 1947 murder. Today, the red vinyl bar stools and movie star caricatures on the walls welcome you to into this dive-y den of iniquity. Bear in mind that this isn’t a bar for craft cocktails. Ask for a beer and a shot, an old school martini, or an old fashioned.
Musso & Frank
If you are a martini lover, you must make the pilgrimage to Musso & Frank. Opened in 1919, the restaurant quickly became the spot for Hollywood luminaries. Deals were often made on the restaurant’s pay phone, which was the first one installed in Hollywood. Everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Marilyn Monroe graced the cozy leather banquettes or sidled up to the long mahogany bar to enjoy a martini. The red jacket, black bow tie-clad waiters and bartenders echo yesteryear, welcoming guests who seek out a bit of Lala Land magic. If you’re lucky, Manny, who has worked here since 1989, will be behind the bar to make you a classic martini, which many people say is the best in the world.
The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel
Rising out of acres of lush vegetation, the Beverly Hills Hotel has earned the moniker the “Pink Palace”. Despite numerous renovations and owners, the hotel still retains its old Hollywood glamour and the Polo Lounge, with its iconic green walls and plush banquettes, has an aura of secrets to it. Built in 1912, the hotel has been a part of the Beverly Hills mystique since before the city was an actual city. Howard Hughes lived there for 30 years, the Rat Pack drank their nights away in the Polo Lounge, and John Lennon sought out solitude in the bungalows with Yoko Ono. Polo Lounge cocktails range from classics to signature drinks, all made with an eye to detail. The Howard Hughes is a marriage of two classics, the Aviation and the Corpse Reviver, while the Moscow Mule and Mai-Tai embody two of Los Angeles’ major contributions to cocktail culture.
The self-proclaimed “House of Irish Coffee”, Bergin’s was known as Tom Bergin’s Horseshoe Tavern & Thoroughbred Club when it opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1936. Originally located where the Los Angeles County Museum of Art now sits, the pub has since moved to its present location on Fairfax, just below Wilshire. A recent revamp happily kept the familiar ceiling crowded with paper shamrocks that sport the names of regular patrons, including Cary Grant (who had his own booth), John Wayne, and even Julia Roberts. As to what to order, the moniker should make it clear. Irish Coffee is the way to go.