The Death in the Afternoon was first published in the 1935 book So Red the Nose, or, Breath in the Afternoon, which compiled cocktail recipes by famous writers. The drink, which consists of absinthe and Champagne with an optional lemon twist, was submitted by Ernest Hemingway; it’s named for his book about bullfighting. One of a slew of Champagne-heavy drinks from the expat milieu of that period, the resulting drink is a decadent mixture of anise and wormwood with the wine’s signature acidity and effervescence.
A couple of years ago, Blake Sondel Cole, owner of the queer bar Friends and Family in Oakland, California, ordered a case of cava to serve by the glass. She was disappointed in the wine, but knew she had to do something to work through all those bottles. (The bar has since switched to a superior prosecco.) Her mind cast back in time to her early cocktail training and she recalled the Death in the Afternoon, the genesis for what’s become one of the cocktail menu’s mainstays: Lulu at Le Monocle.
Friends and Family was built on the aesthetic and historical references that Cole sees herself in. A major influence on the bar’s culture is Le Monocle, a lesbian nightclub popular in 1930s Paris that was a haven of sapphic culture and gender nonconformity. It was immortalized in a series of photographs by the Hungarian-French photographer Brassaï, including a portrait of the bar’s owner, Frede, smoking and drinking Champagne in an elegant dinner jacket. Friends and Family seeks to be a modern day Le Monocle for its patrons—a safe space where queerness is centered—and the Death in the Afternoon riff is an ode to the influential bar.
The Lulu at Le Monocle was born one fateful Halloween when Cole and longtime employee Megan Strait were dressed in drag inspired by the Paris institution. (Cole’s occasional drag alter ego is Frede.) It was at that moment that she was moved to deal with the problem of the subpar cava they had on their hands. Cole spritzed some absinthe in a coupe and chilled it with ice, tossed the ice and added some Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, then topped it with the sparkling wine. To finish, she garnished it with a long piece of lemon peel.
Cole’s Lulu at Le Monocle departs from the original Death in the Afternoon in its ratios (the absinthe is notably dialed back to just a rinse) and its inclusion of bitters, putting it somewhere between the Hemingway drink and a Champagne Cocktail. But both the original and the bar’s own variation are simple, and get to the heart of Cole’s cocktail ethos. For her, the stories behind the drinks at Friends and Family are as important as what’s in the glass. “Even if the cocktail itself is very simple, the name can tell a story,” she says. The presence of the Lulu on the menu has introduced many patrons to the history of Le Monocle; Cole calls the drink “a gateway drug to history.”
Friends and Family offers its clientele a chic, queer space in which to enjoy cocktails inspired by the classics without the aesthetic trappings of the cocktail revival: Its influences are sometimes from spaces of the past, but its reverence of establishments like Le Monocle doesn’t mean it’s dressed up in historical cosplay. And the Lulu at Le Monocle is the perfect showcase for that ethos. As Cole describes the drink, “She’s simple yet surprising, inviting and complex—she’s a really good date.”