Where to Find Great Classic Cocktails in L.A.

Old-school, no-frills, garnish-free, straight-up drinks are making a welcome comeback

Do 15-ingredient cocktails contain about 12 more than you need? Is a drink that takes 15 minutes to prepare about 12 minutes more than you’re willing to wait? Well, you’re in good company because classic cocktails—the ones that pre-date the word “mixologist” by a half a century—are enjoying a city-wide revival. But don’t confuse lack of garnishes for simplicity. Without all the bells and whistles and shrubs and infused bitters to hide behind, every aspect of a classic cocktail has to be perfect. You need to know exactly where to find them—and now you do.

Gin Martini at Musso and Frank Grill

Musso & Frank’s is among the precious remaining touchstones of a bygone era fondly remembered as ‘Old Hollywood’. No surprises that it’s home to the grandaddy of classic cocktails. You want simplicity? Two ingredients — gin and a kiss of dry vermouth. Yet, somehow, nobody does it better. Maybe it’s the spirit — Plymouth is recommended, with it’s subtle allusions to citrus — perhaps it’s the presentation; served alongside an ice-bathed side car. Could it be the nostalgia exuding from this legendary bar? It’s all of the above. And it’s unforgettable.

RELATED: Editor-in-Chief Mary Melton on the Vintage Charm of Musso & Frank’s 

Vodka Martini at The Dresden

Unlike its juniper-laced counterpart, a proper vodka martini needs a touch more vermouth to really shine. Enter another Hollywood icon: The Dresden. Gently stirred, expertly chilled, adorned with two plump cocktail olives, it is the Platonic Ideal. And its immediacy is demanding; for desired effects, it must be consumed within minutes of its preparation.

Gin and Tonic at The Bazaar

At The Bazaar, ‘The Ultimate Gin & Tonic’ more than delivers on its bombastic title. Your choice of gin (Hendrick’s works wonders, with its floral edge) is topped off by the balanced bitterness of Fever Tree Tonic, joined in the glass by a sculpted sphere of transparent ice, lime slice, and a sprig of botanicals. Invigorating effervescence, Instagrammable presentation. 

Old-Fashioned at Seven Grand

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 “We live in a time where so many bartenders want to put their twist on an Old Fashioned,” warns Billy Ray, local mixologist and founder of LA-based Mixwell premium mixers. “Seven Grand shows restraint by sticking to the classic and making it to perfection.” In fact, many a professional drinker judges a beverage program solely through its approach to this All-American whiskey classic. And Seven Grand delivers stunning execution. Sugar cube, smashed with bitters, a wheated bourbon (Maker’s Mark works best), large rock and an orange zest. It ain’t rocket science. It is delicious.

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Manhattan at Three Clubs

The mystical kinship between rye whiskey, vermouth, and bitters is well-documented. But, like the Old-Fashioned before it, too many bartenders are tempted to embellish the tale with superfluous add-ons. Not the case at the Three Clubs, Hollywood’s proudest dive bar. Choose from a variety of base spirits — the tried and true Old Overholt is how nature intended it — and the barkeep will manage the rest. For a more aromatic variation, head to La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills. Sinatra’s favorite Italian hideaway pours a sensational White Manhattan, using un-aged rye and Carpano Bianco, a lavender-scented vermouth.

Dark and Stormy at the Chestnut Club

Another two ingredient legend, this tropical stunner stands upon the strength of a dark rum, and the vibrancy of a fresh ginger beer. At the Chestnut Club in Santa Monica, you’ll get the best of both, along with a lime and ginger garnish, and a dash of angostura for good measure.

Blood and Sand at The Bellwether

“I’m a brown spirits guy, and I enjoy scotch, but it’s really hard to find a good classic cocktail with it,” laments Ted Hopson, executive chef at The Bellwether. Lucky for him, when you run a restaurant you can convince your co-owner and beverage director to craft a drink to your needs. Named after a Rudolph Valentino bullfighter film, the Blood and Sand combines blended scotch with vermouth and orange juice into a somewhat fruity affair. The Bellwether’s maintains a spirit-forward edge by infusing whisky for several days with orange zest, for a drink that is more Manhattan and less Pina Colada. To Hopson’s delight, “it’s a super classic cocktail, just a new version of it.” 

Moscow Mule at Tam O’Shanter

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Being that the Moscow Mule was partly invented here in the early ‘40s, L.A. owes its citizens bountiful access to the vodka cocktail. Look around town and you should feel vindicated in that birthright. It’s not like you need a degree to mix vodka with ginger beer and lime juice in a copper mug, yet some still seem more educated than the rest. Exhibit A: Tam O’ Shanter, Los Angeles’ oldest continuously-operating restaurant. The secret to its success? Fresh-squeezed citrus, a vodka distilled from winter wheat, and Australia’s finest export—Bundaberg Ginger Beer. It’s vivacious, with a slight bite in the finish. But the $8 price tag sure won’t hurt.

RELATED: 6 Places in L.A. to Get a Dirty Martini That Doesn’t Suck 

Cuba Libre at Viviane

When beverage director Ryan Wainwright created the drink menu for Viviane late last year, he focused almost exclusively on 20th Century staples. Since the restaurant incorporates mid-century modern atmosphere and design, he notes, “it gives me the chance to play with those ‘modern classics’ and really make them shine.” A splash of citrusy amaro enlivens the rum and coke standard-bearers, inviting nothing more than a lime garnish to bedazzle a traditional arrangement. Explains Wainwright: “Generally, with a traditional rum & coke, the rum hits your tongue first and then the coke comes sort of abruptly, so I wanted to make it more well-rounded to ease you into those bolder flavors.

Rusty Nail at The Roger Room  

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Tracing it’s origins to 1930s England, the Rusty Nail is as easy to make as it is to drink. One part Drambuie — a honey and heather-laced liqueur — two parts scotch whisky, served over rocks. Eric ‘ET’ Tecosky, bar manager at Jones Hollywood is all about getting back to the basics. “It bodes well for the customers,” he notes. “The issue was, bartenders started feeling like they were the star of the show, and not the regular who pays the bills. It seems that, finally, bowties are loosening and the ‘twisty mustache’ vibe is beginning to un-wax.” ET recommends the Rusty Nail at the Roger Room in West Hollywood, as prepared by his colleague Damian Windsor. “It’s safe to leave the house; bars are fun again!”