Those green apple martinis aren't just dead—they're burried. The latest liquids to fill our tumblers are mixed by an elite crew of bartenders (it's OK to call them that again) who embrace fresh ingredients and cocktail recipes as ancient as your grandparents. At these establishments the drinks, not the scene, are the star. Pretentious? You bet. But tucked in a lacquered-wood booth, knocking back some libation nobody's heard of since the New Deal, you don't really care.
When your waitress puts on a pair of surgical gloves and wheels over a smoking cart, don’t be scared: Just brace yourself. The Nitro caipirinha—frozen before your eyes with liquid nitrogen to sorbet consistency—is potent. Yes, Bar Centro, in the Philippe Starck-designed Bazaar restaurant at the SLS Hotel, is that kind of spot. Mojitos are poured over tufts of cotton candy, and the manhattan contains a “cherry spherification.” What else would you expect from Lucas Paya, the barman who trained at El Bulli, Spain’s—if not the world’s—capital of molecular gastronomy? These out-there concoctions also happen to be delicious, and the bar— a few table-and-chair combos, two communal tables with embedded video screens, and some bona fide bar stools—is psychedelic, to say the least. Time warp: Have you seen??Twin Peaks? Ultimate swill: The gin and tonic (really), with a choice of two artisanal tonics. Secret ingredient: Science. » SLS Hotel, 465 South La Cienega Bouleard, Los Angeles, 310-246-5555.
Not a lot of guys could stick beef jerky in our drink or rim our glass with ground crickets and get away with it. Julian Cox (right), head bartender at John Sedlar’s upscale nueva mexicana restaurant, can. The least plausible star cocktails come from Rivera, like the Barbacoa (blanco tequila, chipotle, jalapeño, ginger, and agave nectar garnished with a dried meat hunk) and the Donaji (mescal, citrus, pomegranate seeds, and agave nectar, the goblet dusted with chapulín—cricket—salt). Even with such ingredients, the most remarkable thing about these beverages is their balance. The drinks aren’t all this adventurous. Tequilas are infused with everything from vanilla to cantaloupe. Vodka gets a kiss of violet, rose water, and Thai basil. The bar area comprises ten stools and a few chairs for leisurely tequila sipping, so scoring a seat among the hordes of mixed-age, moneyed Hollywood types can be tricky. The wait is worth it. Time warp: Mexico City, 40 years in the future. Ultimate swill: Did we mention the Barbacoa? Secret ingredient: With bugs on the menu, you may not want to know. » 1050 South Flower Street, Downtown, 213-749-1460.
The Roger Room
Even with the valet stand out front, we must have passed the Roger Room three times before finding it. The signage is for a psychic parlor, with neon tarot cards and glowing pyramids in the windows. Formerly the Coronet Pub, the minuscule room is deliberately hidden, and frankly we wish we didn’t have to tell you about it. In fact, don’t bother to check out the tan mohair booths, the mirrored walls painted with dancing elephants, the fringed lamp shades, and the little raised lounge in the back—all of which recall a 1920s circus train car. You certainly shouldn’t come to enjoy the handiwork of bartender Damien Windsor, who, with co-owner Jared Meisler (of Bar Lubitsch), has designed a cocktail menu that effortlessly fuses the old-timey and the modern (to wit: the Thug, with Maker’s Mark, honey liqueur, organic lemon juice, and habanero-infused bitters). So move along. There’s nothing to see. Time warp: Where’s the bearded lady? Ultimate swill: The Flim Flam with Bombay gin, Cynar, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, Sambuca Molinari, and an orange peel. Secret ingredient: Temperature-conductive metal straws ensure that the drink stays cold all the way to your lips. » 370 North La Cienega Boulevard West Hollywood, 310-854-1300.
Its proximity to the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market explains the “produce section” thing going on behind the bar. Head bartender Vincenzo Marianella comes by way of Providence, where he single-handedly wrestled L.A.’s flavored-martini craze to the ground with his fresh, classically inspired cocktails. At Copa d’Oro he takes mixology beyond gimmicks, with the argument that a good cocktail doesn’t have to be retro. The space is airier than most, thanks to high-beamed ceilings and a blond-wood bar. The cocktail list changes seasonally and includes such obscure ingredients as Cynar and rhubarb bitters. Or you can choose your own combination of fruit, veggie, and spirit—like at Jamba Juice but with booze. Time warp: So very now. Ultimate swill: The Santa Monica gimlet with Martin Miller’s gin, cucumber, celery, and lime juice. Secret ingredient: Fresh-from-the-farm goods. » 217 Broadway, Santa Monica, 310-576-3030.
Stride past the meat-carving stations to the small door at the back of Cole’s, unmarked save for a tiny framed image of a cocktail glass. This is your find. Though it’s been praised as the greatest gift to L.A. cocktailology since Sinatra first gripped a lowball, you’re still cooler for knowing about it. If there’s a wait, appreciate it—management intentionally keeps the room unpacked. A black-vested gent leads you to a shiny wood banquette, where, to your left, perch two gals with pinned-up hairdos and Mary Janes and, to your right, sits a mustachioed 29-year-old in a bow tie. At the bar Marcos Tello meticulously crafts, tastes, and adjusts your drink—some historic libation not savored for almost a century, such as the Remember the Maine, a mix of rye, vermouth, cherry heering, and absinthe. An old piano is parked in the corner; you half expect it to tinkle out “As Time Goes By.” Here it never does. Time warp: Roaring ’20s speakeasy. Ultimate swill: Bartender’s choice, because chances are the best drink in the house is one you’ve never heard of. Secret ingredient: Patience—these drinks take time. » 118 East 6th Street, Downtown, 213-622-9999.
Photograph by Lisa Romerein