While those newfangled cocktail lounges definitely have their place in the L.A. bar scene, let's not forget what came before them, and what inspired them, really: red-booth bars where you can get a stiff drink served by someone who has been pouring libations since LBJ was in office.
In the name of finding out if something was broke enough to be fixed, we stopped into three iconic Los Angeles spots to investigate their libations, chat up their bartenders, and wax poetic about the good old days of cocktails. A time when drinks were well-made and cheap, and mustaches weren't ironic.
The Dresden Lounge
Lets not mince words. You come to the Dresden Lounge for the ambience, not for the cocktails. Aside from the flat screen TVs behind the bar, the setting is straight out of Megan Draper-era Mad Men. Cozy up in a booth with a stiff drink and watch L.A. icons, musicians Marty & Elayne, do their kitschy, jazzy thing five nights a week.
The head bartender has been at The Dresden for 20 years, and is jovial with regulars and remembers their drink orders. But we're not sure anyone behind the bar has actually tasted a drink in a quarter-century. The vodka Gimlet was the perfect drink for a practicing alcoholic, and the Old Fashioned was cloyingly sweet with a heap of maraschino cherries at the bottom of the glass. You must hit The Dresden to catch Marty & Elayne, but do yourself a favor and order something straight up.
Koreatown is not where you'd expect to find an old school, red Naugahyde steakhouse, let alone a stellar martini, but Taylor's Steakhouse delivers just that. Grab a stool at the long wooden bar downstairs, or sneak up to the second floor bar for a more private setting and get yourself a classic dirty martini. Trust us. With a perfect balance of briny and boozy, and three fat, delicious olives, we nixed our usual rule of only having one dirty martini per night. Though the steakhouse is old, sadly the bartenders were baby-faced and woefully uninterested in our desire for charming acerbity.
Musso & Frank Grill
We saved the best for last. Ruben is a salty, gruffly friendly fellow who is happy to talk about the old days, and proclaims to like his young clientele better than the demanding "old folks." We could picture him at ease behind the bar at the Overlook Hotel, pouring Jack Nicholson a stiff one. His cocktails were not gourmet, but just what you'd expect to find in this landmark restaurant (if you're looking for newfangled-fancy, head next door to The Writer's Room).
We watched as Ruben, who had been working that same bar since 1967, mixed us a vodka martini void of vermouth in an iced pint glass, poured it into a chilled martini glass and crowned it with two olives, followed by a Manhattan in the same un-rinsed pint glass using a good half dozen shakes of bitters (just the way we like it).
Musso & Frank's has a great atmosphere, with people-watching and eavesdropping galore, but we promise that if you get Ruben talking, you'll ignore the rest of the distractions. Stories of Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra on a date with Marilyn Monroe, and his bottle of orange bitters from 1907 were some of our favorite topics that he brought up. The cocktails were beside the point; we'd go back just to talk to Ruben.
After our booze-soaked research, we're willing to admit that new fangled cocktail joints do, indeed, make better cocktails. The L.A. bar scene just wouldn't be what it was without all that talent and knowledge. But at the same time, our city is unparalleled when it comes to classic bars staffed with classic bartenders. Perhaps that glimmer of pretension in the eyes of your mixologists is earned, but dude, just make us a Negroni. No one wants to hear about your new fixie or Angustora tattoo.