West Hollywood’s Bar Lubitsch hits the big one-oh tomorrow. A truly impressive feat in the L.A. nightlife world, especially considering it’s a vodka bar that survived the whiskey-fueled cocktail renaissance. Not even poor Lola’s, the birthplace of the Appletini, can say that.
Co-owner Jared Meisler first opened the Russian-themed cocktail bar on Santa Monica Boulevard with partner Sean MacPherson (Jones) back in 2006, before craft cocktails really hit it huge in L.A. Seven Grand was still a twinkle in Cedd Moses’ eye and I was blogging about everything NOT cocktails. It was Meisler’s first bar ever, fresh off his stint as a bar manager for Bar Marmont.
And not many know this, but Bar Lubitsch was the duo’s attempt to bring New York’s burgeoning craft cocktail scene to Los Angeles. “I went to Milk & Honey in New York and was so inspired, I gotta bring this to L.A.,” Meisler says. But because of the space’s large size, it was more conducive to DJs and dancing. And even though bars like Honeycut can now showcase both a dance floor and craft cocktails, to put two together in one venue back in 2006 would have overwhelmed patrons who, at the time, were unfamiliar with anything crafty.
The bar can claim, however, to be one of the first to use fresh local produce in its cocktails. And despite its vodka-ness, featuring over 200 vodkas, it still put out drinks that were not even remotely Appletini-ish. Here you found cocktails with flaming garnishes, made with bison grass vodka and fresh juices, and even served in rocks glasses instead of the ubiquitious martini glasses. Sure, their drink prices were considered “high-falutin” back then (at $12) but at least they didn’t have bottle service or a velvet rope, which were de rigueur back in the day.
In its decade of existence, Bar Lubitsch has witnessed all the big changes in the cocktail world: the bartender position going from a part-time gig to a full-on career and vodka from beloved to maligned to artisanal. Meisler himself went on to become a key player in the city’s cocktail community, partnering up with MacPherson on The Pikey, Roger Room, and whatever is taking over the old Tinto space, as well as helping advise the first Golden State of Cocktails.
So how has Bar Lubitsch managed to stay relevant in the changing cocktail world? I asked Meisler.
Why open a vodka-focused bar?
“Because 10-12 years ago the neighborhood was predominantly Russian. So much so that some of the street signs are in Russian. There’s tons of Russian delis there. Some people call it Little Odessa. We try to build places that feel authentic and feel real and to have a vodka bar in this Russian neighborhood seemed like a good idea.”
How do you keep a vodka bar relevant?
“My single biggest thing over the years is music. If we were playing the same music today that we were playing 10 years ago, we’d be closed. And so we’re constantly updating the playlist, we’re constantly bringing in new DJs. Over the last 10 years we’ve had a lot of DJs in resident that have gone on to be huge names in the DJ world. Mia Moretti, her very first DJ residency was at Bar Lubitsch. She’s now DJ’d Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, she does Fashion Week for every city in the world. Myles Hendrik was a man about town when he DJ’d at Bar Lubitsch but now he just DJ’d the Stella McCartney fashion show. Mike B. is a really good friend of mine. He was no slouch 10 years ago but now he flies around the world and DJs. And Daisy O’Dell! She’s done remixes for Mike and Daisy are both playing Wednesday at the anniversary party and maybe Myles will come through if he’s not out of town.”
How has the drink scene changed in the last 10 years in L.A.?
“Ten years ago…nobody knew what a Negroni was. I remember I worked at Bar Marmont and somebody ordered a Negroni and one of the bartenders was laughing at him. And I was like, ‘We should know that! Why are we laughing at him?’ We had a couple of people that just moved out from New York but we had to teach people from scratch. I know Julian [Cox] does that all the time now but there was no point of reference. We tried to get as many copies of Jerry Thomas’ book that we could scrap together and get people to read it and to actually care. [Bartenders] were annoyed that we had muddlers. And they’d be, ‘No thanks, I wanna sling some Jack and Cokes.’ So I’ve seen that in a very big way. Now everyone knows it. It’s part of our culture now.”
What’s the secret to Bar Lubitsch’s longevity?
“The staff. We have a group of people that really care about the place and care about taking care of people. Much of the staff has been there since opening night. The managers that are there now have been there for six or seven years. And I think people like consistency. That’s a huge part of it. We also take good care of the place. We never have the booths have rips in them, never let light fixtures be without lightbulbs. And I know that sounds obvious. Even the little things like the chairs are comfortable and there’s no gum stuck under the bar. We really just care and always pay attention.”
What’s the strangest vodka that you carry?
“We’ve got a lot of weird vodkas. We have a black one. It’s totally black. Don’t ask me why it’s black. There was vampire vodka for awhile, it’s bright red. Vodka’s definitely one of these markets that everybody with some wacky idea and five bucks can have their own vodka company. There was the energy vodka which would just about give somebody a heart attack if they drank that and the Red Bull with it. So we carried them but we didn’t want to serve them with Red Bull. We do have some of that stuff that would make my stomach turn like bubblegum and cotton candy. There are people that ask for it, that really like it. So I think if you’re a vodka bar you really have to have it.”
Tomorrow is Bar Lubitsch’s 10th anniversary party which will feature star DJs in the front and back rooms as well as half-priced cocktails (originally $12 each) til 2 a.m.. If you can’t make the shindig, the bar will be doing those half-priced drinks through Sunday.