When I first met Aidan Demarest in 2007, he was the general manager for the then brand-new whiskey bar Seven Grand. Back in those days Los Angeles’ idea of cocktails was the Chocolate Martini. I should know, I drank plenty of them. Fast-forward to now and Demarest, who has since become brand ambassador several times over and bar owner, is managing once again, but this time at the brand-new BarToni’s in North Hollywood’s iconic Little Toni’s Italian restaurant.
North Hollywood is at the tipping point Downtown L.A. was with cocktails circa 2007, according to Demarest. Now it has 1933 Group’s Idle Hour, Fat Dog with cocktails by Matthew Biancaniello, and the menu at Tiki No, which was revamped by Roger Room bartenders Jason Bran and Damian Windsor a few years ago. The number of cocktail enthusiasts wandering Vineland Avenue seems to have quadrupled.
Even on the Tuesday night before dinnertime, when I dropped in to visit Demarest behind the bar, it was a-buzzing. The 59-year-old Little Toni’s has always been a hopping place, especially around 8 p.m., but its bar area had been a sad waste of space, featuring only two TVs and nearly empty shelves that displayed a few wine bottles. The only reason anyone would spend time in there was because it was on the way to the bathroom.
Little Toni’s didn’t really need a cocktail bar as it had its steady stream of regular customers, but it realized it should grow with the neighborhood.
“They’re forward-minded and this neighborhood is coming up,” says Demarest. “Although this place is great and an institution, if three more Idle Hours opened up on this block it would be a dinosaur.”
Fortunately, the restaurant finally won the liquor license lottery—after 15 years of applying for one—so, it sought the help of Demarest and his Liquid Assets consulting partner Marcos Tello.
And now the old school red sauce Italian restaurant boasts a redesign by Ricki Kline—the designer behind places like The Normandie Club and Barrel and Ashes—as well as a brand-new, fun, and irreverent cocktail program by Garrett McKechnie (1886, Feed Body and Soul). (Tello had to leave the project early because of his work as a Mezcal El Silencio brand ambassador.)
Finally the once neglected “hallway” is now where you go when you just want something fun to drink before, during, or after dinner. You’ll find a super-size version of famed bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler‘s Grasshopper shake, a Harvey Wallbanger served in a Galliano Tiki mug, and, yes, even a Lemon Drop Martini. Demarest made sure to stay away from drinks that seemed “pretentious,” but he does employ gimmicks like pyrotechnics and wacky glassware to win the crowd over.
“The Harvey Wallbanger is selling off the charts probably because of the Tiki mugs it comes in. In Seven Grand the Mint Julep sold off the charts because of the silver cups, at the Edison the absinthe drinks sold because of the bottles. No one cared a f–k what was in them. When you’re doing a new market, it’s gotta look like something. It has to be visual because then everyone else at the bar sees it and goes, ‘Ohh! I want that!'” he says.
But not to say that this bar is serving up simply bad ’80s cocktails. It’s jumped on that trend of “craft versions of bad cocktails.” Although there is a frozen Daiquiri set on fire, the bar is still cocktail serious. It now has a Kold-Draft ice machine, an ice crusher, and a stellar bar crew comprised of the Neat bartenders Demarest moved here after closing his Glendale bar.
“The bar is stocked with everything, even though it’s an old school place. This all got gutted out. They didn’t say no to anything. We put in all-new fridges, all-new appliances. They’re a big deal to a place like this that’s had the same mixer in the kitchen since 1965,” says Demarest.
BarToni’s will stay open til 2 a.m. every night.
Hot tip: You can get a free 6-inch cheese or pepperoni pizza when you order a specialty cocktail during happy hour Monday through Friday from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.