Behind the Bartender: Justin Pike of the Tasting Kitchen

Why the Venice hot spot’s booze guy is drinking canned sake

Tasting Kitchen‘s Justin Pike isn’t in the limelight like most of his bartender brethren and he doesn’t go for what’s trendy, but his bar program has won attention as one of the best in L.A. And thankfully, unlike most roaming bartenders, he’s stayed put. Next week marks his 6th anniversary at Chef Casey Lane’s popular Venice restaurant, having come on weeks before it opened. Before that, he helped open the award-winning Clyde Common in Portland. If you want to catch the man behind the bar, he’s there almost every day (his schedule’s here).

I had a chance to ask him some questions as part of our recurring Q&A series with L.A. bartenders. Here are his quick answers.

What’s a popular drink at your bar?

“The Braveheart! That damned Braveheart, the Penicillin variation that won’t go away. I took that drink off the menu four years ago and it’s still our most popular drink! It even has hybrids with other spirits, also named after Mel Gibson’s incredible repertoire. My favorite is the Man Without a Face, which, like the movie, is equally flat with a vodka base.”

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

“From everywhere! It totally depends. Sometimes from a new spirit, a twist on an old classic, and sometimes from an article I read and think, ‘hmm, how can I make this better?” The most interesting thing for me is seeing the change in what I like over the years. Working with the same chef for six years, who has also constantly evolved, you watch how people grow into new things, change what they like, what they don’t like. Even the approach is different. Earlier, I found my approach more raw, impulsive, and accidental. Now I find myself thinking more before each step. You see the same correlation in music that you do in making drinks.”

What’s the best night to go to your bar and why?

“Depends what you want. Weekends are a big party. On the weekdays, its a slightly less big party, let’s call it a medium party… I always tell people to come on the ‘off times,’ like when we open at 5:30. You get more attention and can enjoy the space and wonderfully curated back bar. Or go hang out with John at like 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. Order some Zombies and watch him sweat.”

The next big thing in cocktails is_____?

“This question is always funny to me. The best cocktails are still the same ones they’ve always been. Manhattan, martini, gimlet, daiquiri, old fashioned…and a few tiki drinks just for good measure. Oh, and a negroni! How could I have left out that old dog?!”

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

“You should know you’re asking someone who reads and draws tons of comics this question. (My fiancée has learned how to handle a comic book properly when she bent a comic during one of her dinner parties… she enjoyed the tutorial about as much as I enjoyed seeing the bent comic.) It’s gotta be mind reading. Yes, flying is fun, but a red head doesn’t need to be more prone to sunburns out in the open air. Plus it’s probably really cold. And being invisible would be great, too, but you’d have to worry about being super quiet. At least with mind reading, I could make money whenever I wanted.”

Where do you like to drink in L.A.?

“Well, being a ‘Westsider’ means I don’t really leave the Westside. It’s a blessing and a curse. If I want a proper drink I can go to Tasting Kitchen and Scopa. If I want a beer and a fun time, I go bother those guys at the Whaler or the Brig (thanks, guys). My favorite dive bar I am not giving up so it doesn’t get even worse than it is. But let’s just say it;s the last of the true dive bars on Abbott Kinney.”

Where’s your favorite place to eat in L.A.?

“Sugarfish. The warmed rice does it.”

What do you like to drink when you’re not working (doesn’t have to be cocktails)?

“Heh, I had to check my fridge. It’s a sake in a small can called “Kikusui Funaguchi.” They sell is at Whole Foods. I think I am the only person who buys ’em. Now I am wondering if I should have written this; hopefully they’re not out of stock next time I am there.”