The Best Restaurant Bar Programs in L.A.

Despite what the <em>New York Times</em> says, there are plenty of great restaurant bars

Restaurant critic Pete Wells was kinda tough on New York restaurant’s bar programs in his New York Times column this week, saying that “an awful lot of the cocktails I’ve had in restaurants have landed with a splat in the ‘not good’ category.” So to convince Wells otherwise, Grubstreet came up with a list of New York restaurant cocktails “that don’t suck.” Surprisingly there were only 13 drinks.

Thirteen? L.A. could pass that in its sleep. In Los Angeles, many restaurants are taking their cocktail programs seriously. They’re hiring cocktail consultants or beverage directors, usually well-respected mixologists and bartenders, to build the bar program by handpicking the spirits, training the staff, and creating a drink menu to complement the food and the theme. Nowadays, a phoned-in cocktail menu of “classics with a twist” ain’t gonna cut it.

For this list, instead of calling out one cocktail from each restaurant, I decided to give a shoutout to restaurant bars that actually have drinks you finish involuntarily.

By the way, originally this list was up to 22 but had to whittle it down. Are there any restaurants that you think should have made the cut?

Rivera/Bestia/Acabar/Petty CashJulian Cox has the magic touch when it comes to bar programs. Trained by Sam Ross at Comme Ca, Julian’s drinks appeal to both teetotaller and pro drinkers. Unlike most restaurant cocktails which are light for fear of interfering with the food, his drinks are still flavorful and will leave liquor lovers sated. His bartenders are required to go through six weeks of training to earn a spot at one of his bars. Basically, when you see the Cox name on the menu, you know you’re good to go.

A.O.C.: Christiaan Rollich is also the man behind the bar programs at Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s other successful restaurants—Lucques and Tavern—but it was his creations at A.O.C. that helped put it at the top of L.A. Magazine’s 75 Best Restaurants list, at least for me. There he makes his own…well, everything, from coffee liqueurs to pepita syrups to even bathtub gin.

Brilliantshine: If Julian Cox can create such amazingness for other bar programs, you can imagine what he’s doing with his own restaurant, which he owns with his Soigne Group partner Josh Goldman. It’s like the best of Julian all up in there with cocktails inspired by his world travels. Best part, you can enjoy his drinks during a boozy brunch, late night or before and after dinner with food by Chef Richie Lopez. (During the meal, partake of Goldman’s wine list.)

The Corner Door: While this Culver City restaurant played musical chefs, head bartender Beau du Bois has been a stalwart fixture since the beginning, making it a go-to spot for cocktail enthusiasts who followed him from his days at M.B. Post. Plus, who can stay away from those fun cocktails with unusual flavor combinations like pineapple and cinnamon-infused Campari.

Crossroads: The fact that barman Jeremy Lake can create tasty vegan cocktails is a testament to his skills. Have you checked out his vegan hot buttered rum? Trained by Julian Cox, Lake consistently puts out imaginative drinks to complement chef Tal Ronnen’s animal-friendly cuisine.

The Eveleigh: Bar manager Dave Kupchinsky has singlehandedly turned the Sunset Strip, an area usually favored by tourists and the beautiful people, into a destination for craft cocktail enthusiasts. Every Monday features a different guest bartender, every Sunday a farmers-market fresh cocktail, and of course there’s D-Kup’s seasonally updated menu.

Gracias Madre: Another vegan restaurant with an impressive bar program. What are the chances? Only in L.A. At this West Hollywood vegan Mexican restaurant, beverage director Jason Eisner complements the fun fare by the Cafe Gratitude crew with build-your-own picklebacks, 24k gold-flecked cocktails, and boozy popsicles.

Ink: If you can’t get a reservation at Chef Michael Voltaggio’s hot West Hollywood adjacent restaurant, a seat at the bar with head bartender Gabriella Mlynarczyk is in no way a consolation prize. She will wow you with her unique cocktails which make use of inventive ingredients like housemade IPA foam, chartreuse pixie dust, and chamomile vermouth. Or for something more familiar, check out her list of classic cocktails where a Negroni is made with rapid barrel-aged gin and the Dirty Martini has sake, umeboshe plums, vinegar, and celery bitters.

Petit Trois: It’s exciting stuff to be able to have cocktails with chef Ludo Lefebvre’s French bistro fare. For a long while diners could only enjoy BYOB wine with the pop-up king’s cuisine. But now for his second brick-and-mortar restaurant which features a full bar, bartender Danielle Motor (Hungry Cat) created food-friendly and Ludo-approved drinks.

Republique: I’m usually torn between barman Erik Lund’s cocktails and sommelier Taylor Parson’s wine list here but in the end it’s a cocktail for starters and wine for the meal. Lund’s short cocktail list–categorized by aperitif, traditional, and market–changes often, keeping up with chef Walter Manzke’s menu. So if you see something on there you like now better order it before it’s gone.

Scopa Italian Roots: What happens when two skilled barmen and a chef go into the restaurant business together? You get this Venice-adjacent eatery where everything you consume makes you happy. Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix (also co-owners of Santa Monica’s new Chestnut Club) created not only a stellar cocktail menu with instant favorites like Bullock’s Wilshire as well as one of the best Palomas I’ve ever had but a rich person’s drink list expertly using high-end stuff.

Tasting Kitchen: Barman Justin Pike has shaped the program of Chef Casey Lane’s Venice hotspot eatery since it opened in 2009. His drinks are simple, approachable and excellently crafted. Sure he’ll employ cocktail trends but because they make sense for his bar, and not because they’re crowd pleasers. Back when shrubs started to hit the scene, Pike made his own since he wasn’t a fan of the farm-to-glass trend. Shrubs were a good way to add the fruit component.