There is some debate about how and where a Martini was invented. Fortunately, I don’t care. When someone creates art, it is no longer theirs: It belongs to the public. The Martini is perfect. It is art.
I grew up in Los Angeles, an unquestionably great place to fall in love with the Martini. My love blossomed at the Sunset Tower Hotel, which has been operating in one way or another since 1929. The hotel's iconic Tower Bar is the kind of place that makes you feel alive on a Monday night, where it’s dark and classy enough to hold both cheap suits and expensive hoodies; a place to bring a second date you really want to impress, or to drink alone when you feel wistful or pleasantly contemplative; where you can still imagine Philip Marlowe or Jake Gittes getting thrown by their collar down a staircase.
In my estimation, there are only two essential ingredients in a Martini: one is gin, and the other is vibes. Tower Bar set my standard for vibes, but Los Angeles is filled with places that keep this idea of the Martini alive, that foster it, that entrench it to Old Hollywood, whether it is an old steakhouse (Taylor’s), an old Italian restaurant (Dan Tana’s), or an old Italian steakhouse (Colombo’s). These are places where the Martini remains fixed, where there may be a cocktail menu but I’ve certainly never seen it.
Venture into any new bar or restaurant, however, and it’s clear the vibe has shifted. The Martini has become increasingly self-conscious, pandering even—peddling whatever version of itself might capture the moment, or lure people who “didn’t think they liked Martinis.” What I’ve realized is that beyond “gin and vibes,” there is another somewhat intangible Martini criterion that is equally essential: I don’t want my Martini to need me.
“The Martini has become increasingly self-conscious, pandering even.”
I recently went out to dinner with friends, to a newish revamp of an old Beverly Hills Italian restaurant. My Martini was objectively excellent. I ordered it with Plymouth. My friend ordered the restaurant’s signature Martini, a Gibson with pickled romanesco and black garlic oil. I shook my head imperceptibly. Was it good? Who cares? I felt myself getting bristly. I continued to sip my objectively excellent Martini. A crunchy, bright Caesar had excellent balance, made tableside. They were sold out of the veal Parm, so we tried the manicotti for four, which was creamy and acidic. The server was in his 20s. Wait, black garlic oil? My mind kept going back to that. My friend ordered another one, or maybe it was a classic Martini. Dammit, I’m already qualifying it as a classic Martini. They might have sent some dessert for his birthday, but I wish they hadn’t because Martini people are not supposed to be dessert people. I went home angry, or at least indignant.
I realize that this isn’t the first time in its 150-or-so-year history that the drink has felt the need to put on bright lipstick or loud cologne. The television of my youth spun yarns about the suffixation of the “’tini,” whether it be apple, lychee or just plain vodka; of lemon drops and espresso. Those, of course, are all back, too. There will always be a new generation of adults looking for identity in a V-shaped glass while wanting nothing to do with the things it’s meant to contain. Someone will invent a diet-food item that we later discover is actually quite bad for you, a young chef will make ketchup from scratch before getting older and realizing that Heinz is perfect, and bartenders will always find new ways to reimagine a Martini.
“Gin and vibes,” I said to a group of friends weeks later, during a blackout this summer, sitting around a fire pit for light, drinking sweaty bottles of chilled wine. “You’re forgetting one key component of a Martini,” one friend said in response. She, like most of us, was a Martini person, but also a professor of literature. “Existential dread,” she continued. Her words hung in the air. The wine was getting warm and I was being eaten by mosquitoes. She was right, of course. Foundationally sunny people are not Martini people. A Martini is not just gin and vibes. It is a high-class jab of morphine into the heart of a person who knows the world is mostly fucked, a place with a bubbling rot just below the surface, sometimes all across the floor and in the air, too. A Martini is gin—rather a lot of it—ice cold and in a festive glass, with a whisper of vermouth. A Martini is like getting dressed up for the end of the world; it is the band playing on the sinking Titanic; it is a celebration of life when things are going well, made more profound by the knowledge that the highs are inherently ephemeral. A Martini is a brief pause on a pleasant moment, savoring it before it is gone.
Your Martini should not need you. It should not need anchovies, or espresso, or pickled brassicas, or a whole shallot. It does not require reinvention, or an oyster shell wash. Your Martini is not supposed to be thirsty.
The professor’s husband, who very much does not like Martinis, begged for us to stop talking about fucking Martinis. He was, frankly and understandably, bored; we genuinely loved him for it. Martini people love people who don’t love Martinis. They are not for everyone. They are not supposed to be.
“Your Martini should not need you. It should not need anchovies, or espresso, or pickled brassicas, or a whole shallot. Your Martini is not supposed to be thirsty.”
Some weeks later, as “research” for this piece, I decided to use my own birthday as an excuse to meet up with a few friends, drink some Martinis and eat dinner. We started at the only appropriate beginning point: Sunset Tower. One Beefeater Martini with a twist quickly turned into two. A friend ordered a 50/50, which I reject on principle as a definitive half-measure. We sauntered to Chateau Marmont, another hefty dose of Old Hollywood, where the kind food and beverage director thought it wise to send out some bread and assorted snacks. We drank Monkey 47 Gibsons. (In case you’re wondering, we did not go to Musso & Frank, despite its reputation. There is a dark energy to that place, as if Hollywood Boulevard is seeping in through its walls. It is not the vibe I am looking for.) Some of us were already flagging a bit, but we soldiered on to Dear John’s, another old restaurant that has been revamped, hopefully for the better. I had never been. We drank Nikka Martinis, ate pigs in blankets and a very good rib-eye, among other assorted and blurry items. We didn’t eat dessert (or did we?) and we confirmed that four Martinis is probably too many, and that five is definitely too many.
An Incomplete List of Great Places to Drink a Martini in Los Angeles
I also realized that a Martini crawl is not in the spirit of a Martini. Just like how five Martinis is too many Martinis, five people drinking them is too many, too. The appropriate number of people is somewhere between one and four. I thought of the eight of us, sitting around at various bars and restaurants, and that if I were sitting alone at the end of the bar drinking one, I would have hated us for turning Martinis into an activity, like something tourists could sign up for on Eventbrite. Come tour the best Martini bars in Los Angeles!
We live in a time in which seemingly everything is vying for our attention; it’s inevitable that the Martini would get thrust into that arena again. I’d just prefer that the flavored mayonnaises, adaptogenic CBD-infused canned cocktails and the gut-health industrial complex flail their arms at us instead. I want the Martini to remain free from all of this. I want to be able to say, “I’ll have a Martini,” and not have to say words like “classic” or “gin.” I want to know that there will always be a strong, crisp true north—that despite everything and anything else, I can tuck into a dark corner of a dark old bar, and know that the bartender will hand me nothing more than a warm blanket that tastes like cold gin.