Times are strange for an aging creature of the night in LA. Nothing seems the same anymore.
I grew up in Southern California and after ten years in New York, spent the last fifteen living back here. Now as I look around, my fellow Californians seem to have been replaced by a great Nor'easter of evacuees from the merciless winters of New York, Boston and Chicago.
Our streets are snarled and our apartments are shrinking, while tent cities mushroom across our neighborhoods. The hills of our California childhoods have been singed and washed away. While a new Angeleno, filtered through the east coast, will only know a Downtown skyline shaped by corporate Korean airlines and Chinese mega-developers.
But the most visible sign of this invasion has been in our restaurants and bars. An Eataly over here. A Serafina there. A Shack Shack everywhere. Maybe a criminally perverted restaurateur right here, where your favorite Hollywood bar used to be.
With so much intrinsic talent turning LA into a destination for diners and drinkers, does the cloning of these out-of-state concepts threaten to turn Los Angeles into another Las Vegas, meanwhile overshadowing the creativity of this city's heartfelt chefs?
Would an entire region that long ridiculed our culture (or supposed lack thereof) ever be able to know, let alone honor, our history and spirit?
With these questions ever on our minds, this Saturday my wife and I decided to go check out Apotheke, the well-regarded Manhattan bar that just opened on the outskirts of LA's Chinatown. Because if there's anything we do miss about New York, it's the great bars.
Apotheke cuts a comely figure, beckoning from a square, white brick building atop a small grade holding tightly onto the North Spring Street Aqueduct which spans a stretch of the LA River dividing Chinatown from Lincoln Heights. We approached this glowing beacon of a municipal watchtower only to be met by a man with a clipboard sizing us up. I sensed imminent rejection. For some reason, in a wild stab at respectability, I wore a button-down collared shirt that night. No one wears those anymore, apparently, and this will be the last night I attempt such foolishness in the mecca of the formal t-shirt.
"Are you with one of the birthday parties tonight," he asked in a welcoming tone, almost convincing us he actually wanted us inside.
Having worked with an owner on securing photos for this story and given him a heads up we were going to roll through, we dropped owner Christopher Tierney's name. The doorkeeper disappeared inside, returned instantly, then ushered us inside to Tierney's table, front and center.
Apotheke's interior is a fairly faithful recreation of the Manhattan location's design. A shadow-flecked hall of discreet alcoves and tasteful nooks under a tin ceiling forms a gauntlet stretching to an arched, backlit bar of marble covered in assorted apothecary bottles and bartenders in white lab coats. The room has an uniquely beautiful, old-world sensibility, but as we'd learn, does not take itself too seriously.
We spent about five minutes chatting with Tierney, who took a chance on this far-flung location many years before David Chang would sign on to the surrounding development with his new neighboring restaurant, Majordomo, providing a boost to the overall site in the process. Tierney broke down his years-long hunt to import the same marble for the LA bar that he has in New York's Chinatown, only to end up buying Donna Karen's leftovers for a song.
He told us it wouldn't be a typical night here due to two birthday buyouts currently underway. Then we parted ways with the owner and hit the bar for our first drink of the night. And yes, we paid for all our drinks.
Drink # 1: Miracle of Mazunte – 9pm
The bar was buzzing but far from packed as we procured our first cocktails, named Miracle of Mazunte. All the drinks here have pretty heavy names and appear to be composed of a lot of prep-intensive ingredients.
One of the first things we saw when looking up the bar's address was a mention of the great expense of the cocktails. But at $16, they felt pretty typical of modern market prices around here.
This first cocktail was based on basil-infused mezcal, with beet-mamey puree, lime and habanero bitters beneath a float of club soda. The drink was produced quickly. It tasted like getting the betabel from a Mexican juice bar, with a hit of espadin from a friend's flask. The earthy beets played great foil to the leathery mezcal, though we would have liked to feel some heat from the bitters and taste anything of the basil, both of which were lost.
Grabbing our drinks, we took a hard right and discovered something that Apotheke in New York does not have (nor do most bars in LA): one seriously kickass outdoor patio.
An elegant marble bar resembling the one on the inside sits on the left, with a backyard boogie-worthy setup of Adirondack-strapped nooks on the other side. The whole thing is set over a huge graffiti yard littered with famous street names from the walls to the bridge's underarches, a nearly full moon dangling above the river and the Northeast hills. After two days of rain, the stars were out. Life was pretty lovely out here on the fringe.
Drink #2 - 9:30pm - Nuvem de Terra
Our next drink was a this blend of bourbon and rum with blackberry-acai puree, lime and ginger, misted with Laphroaig whisky. Despite a nice bourbon sweetness at the starting line and rum on the finish, this turned out to be our least favorite drink, as the fruit puree dominated, making the drink take on a greater grenadine-like cloy the more we drank.
At this point, the bartender looked to the couple sitting next to us. "Want to do a shot with me?"
Trying to get in on this action, as always, I clapped back, "Oh, we'd absolutely love to do a shot with you," only to watch him pour three shots for the couple and himself. The man turned down the shot. I happily volunteered my own family to take his place. I was either ignored or not heard.
"I'm just sick of the guys in LA. They're all so fucking hipster," a woman beside me complained to her friend.
As we made small talk, the crowd began to swell. By and large, the patrons appeared to be 25-35, predominantly white and noticeably dedicated to normcore. There were ladies in wide-cuffed, shapeless pants and high-waisted, stone-washed mom jeans. Short men in bad beards and slightly better glasses. A lot of black leather jackets on wiry frames. One guy peacocking in a kimono.
It's tempting to say the space was sexier than the attendees that night, but no matter. L.A.'s sexiest crowds are often found at its wackest places. And it was refreshing to see a beautiful, major-league cocktail bar not take itself too seriously. TLC and Mary J played over the speakers. People danced where they wanted to dance. A fun, light vibe shot through the whole bar. And nobody seemed to really care about being seen.
About midway into our second drink, we noticed a circle of people growing around a tall, thin gentleman, who was clearly the life of some party. It turned out to be a nice guy I'd chatted with a few weeks back at a multi-course cannabis dinner in Downtown.
Drink #3 – Pious Winter – 10:06pm
Our final drink at Apotheke on Saturday was called Pious Winter, a cognac dram with yellow chartreuse, lime, Angostura bitters and poached pear that arrived about six agonizing minutes after its bill did. The flavor was inconsistent, initially veering more towards the citrus, though as we continued to imbibe, the poached pear became ever more discernible and pleasant.
Overall, we were loving the scene, if not entirely gaga over our drinks, which seemed to involve a lot of ingredients we never ended up actually tasting.
By this time, things were really building into the blissful blur of weirdness we seek in a night out. Though the music may have taken a bit of a turn towards the heinous, veering from respectable R&B to the personally less palatable J-Lo/Angie Martinez anthem "Ladies Night" until finally, a full-on, beat-shuddering version of "Rhythm of the Night" came on. And I'm talking Corona's Euro techno Rhythm of the Night as seen on ads. Not DeBarge.
A redhead in a baseball jacket to my left raised her arms in a V for victory. A guy with a John Davidson pompadour started really moving his hips to the beat.
Things were getting more crowded. A kid who seemed to style himself after the Canadian dancehall don Snow hit his vape pen. Two DJs were on the decks now, neither playing actual records as far as we could tell. It was time to let these kids make some bad decisions on their own.
So we walked a few dozen feet over to Majordomo, to take advantage of the late-hour seating at David Chang's neighboring new restaurant. Everything we ate was terrific. But much like New York itself, the feeling that you're missing out on the whole experience unless you're shelling out for the most expensive stuff was palpable. As we checked in with Majordomo's hostess, my wife and I both swore we knew her from somewhere.
"You look so familiar to me. Where were you working before this?"
She mentioned a legendary old bar that just had to scram out of Beverly Hills. Then said something like, "But I'm also an actress. Maybe you've seen my work."
As we make our way back home, we pass Apotheke again to see a trendier scrum materializing before the door. And the words of Majordomo's hostess play back to me. And for a second, it's nice to know New York can only change so much about a place.