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Bar Review: The New Face of the Hotel Bar

Downtown LA’s booming scene insists that the new hotel bar is really five bars in one.

Not long ago, if you were visiting an American city and looking for a good time, the first thing you did was get the hell out of your hotel. You’d leave behind its lifeless, functional lobby, its subpar, under-populated restaurant, its musty, night-of-the-living-dead bar. Your night on the town lied elsewhere, where people did food and drink and ambiance well. The hotel was there to provide a bed and eat your dust.

Then the boutique hotel arrived. People couldn’t wait to check in, and it became hard to flush them out. One reason is status—there’s a cachet to telling your friends you’re staying at the local Ace. Hang out in the lobby and the world will come to you. The hotels want it that way. They have designed their interiors as mercantile honeytraps, with cafés that toss you into shops that lure you into restaurants, each one hipper than the last. In this way, the boutiques have honored the classic strategies of the past, in which ambitious hoteliers strived to create miniature cities to keep patrons’ money circulating internally.

Bill Kimpton, who died in 2001, was a trailblazer of this new arena of lodging. Beginning in the 1980s, he began buying fading small hotels with good bones and remaking them as shabby-chic destinations for travelers weary of the faceless megahotels. Focused on providing top-tier food and drink, the chain routinely hired talented young bartenders, like Jacques Bezuidenhout and Mike Ryan, to manage his hotels’ many bars.

The Kimpton chain is no longer alone. Its model is now mirrored by 21c, Ace, the NoMad, Line and Freehand hotels—the latter three all owned by the same outfit, the Sydell Group. This revolution has had an enlivening effect on the bar world.

Nowhere else is this phenomenon more starkly illustrated than in Los Angeles. The city’s downtown is currently experiencing a hotel and nightlife boom, with new editions of NoMad and Freehand, as well as the Hotel Figueroa, all opening within the past nine months. These hotels don’t have bars; they have bar universes, meant to offer one-stop bar-hopping. The 14-story Figueroa, for instance, will eventually hold five concepts, including Bar Alta, a reservation-only bar. (For now, only Bar Figueroa in the lobby is open.)

To create those concepts, the Apicii Group, a New York-based restaurant company in charge of Figueroa’s food and beverage programs, hired Dushan Zaric, one of the founders of Employees Only. “I wanted to offer a wide variety of drinking options,” says Zaric, “from a grand lobby bar” to Alta, which will be “for people who really want to experience a cocktail made in the Old-World way with the ambience to go with it.”

Even if I didn’t know about Zaric’s involvement, I might have guessed it, based solely on the bartenders’ crisp white jackets—a hallmark of the EO brand. Those jackets distinguish a space that is very much in keeping with the boutique aesthetic: equal parts handsome and raffish, with a hodgepodge of seating options and some (often terrible) modern art on the walls. It’s a certain clichéd decorative language that makes you feel you’re in a place both edgy and safe.

The hotel was originally designed in the Spanish Colonial style, and the lobby bar has retained some of that aesthetic. In keeping with this, Zaric has made Bar Figueroa’s focus Spanish-style G&Ts, served in goblets with copious garnishes. There are six types, each named after the gin used. The Mare, festooned with basil, lime peel and green cardamom, is savory, as befits that excellent Spanish gin. The No. 3, despite having both grapefruit and grapefruit tonic, tasted more of the rosemary and balsam fir that joined them.

All the G&Ts are prepared in a theatrical manner in keeping with LA’s showbiz-y ways. A portion of dry ice, enclosed in a tea strainer, is lowered into the glass as the drink is prepared—a method Zaric calls “freeze infusion.” While so equipped, the drinks bubble and steam like something out of Victor Frankenstein’s lab. The dry ice is eventually removed and replaced by real ice. Whether the process makes any difference in the taste of the drink, I doubt any customer cares. The display alone feels worth the $15. (Other cocktails range from $13 to $16.)

There are attractions elsewhere on the menu as well. The bar’s namesake drink, the Figueroa, is negligible. A long vodka drink made with lemon, fig, honey and ginger beer, it is one-note, tasting mainly of ginger. But the Basque Call, a stirred drink made of tequila, elderflower liqueur, sherry, yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters, is gorgeous. A version of Zaric’s and Jason Kosmas’ drink, Yellow Jacket (the sherry being the difference), it’s the sort of elegant, restrained cocktail one doesn’t always associate with EO. The Picon Punch, meanwhile, is made with a housemade Picon, grenadine and lemon tonic water. The server sold me on it by insisting it tasted like Coca-Cola—maybe Coca-Cola as I imagine it was once in the past: delicate, nutty, subtly bitter and immediately likable.

Where Bar Figueroa has tonic, Rudolph’s Bar & Tea—at the Freehand, five blocks away—has, yes, tea. Rudolph’s is just to the right of check-in as you walk in and makes full use of the lobby, which is full of pillars and blonde wood. It’s an apt illustration of how far Sydell and its ilk will go to shake off lobby-life’s fuddy-duddy reputation.

Tea has been a plaything of cocktail bartenders for a long time. But few have taken it to the extremes of Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta, of Broken Shaker fame, who run Rudolph’s. “Tea is an ingredient that often gets categorized for being too fragile to put in cocktails,” says Orta. “We wanted to pay homage to its delicate nature and use it in different ways.” Every drink on the menu has some blend in it, from chamomile to matcha. (Drinks here and on the rooftop range from $12 to $16.)

A Tour of LA's Newest Hotel Bars

The Albert Lombard Cocktail, with gin, aquavit, blanc vermouth and white tea-infused strawberry syrup, is an upgraded answer to the Cosmo. What impact the tea has is difficult to measure, but it certainly didn’t impair the flavor. The tea also played a subtle role in the Dance This Mess Around—surprising, since it was Lapsang souchong, a tea bartenders use to introduce smoky flavors to drinks—where it joins a Sidecar-esque combination of Cognac, lemon, honey and apricot preserves. The latter two ingredients, in particular, work in tantalizing harmony.

If the ceilings at Rudolph’s aren’t high enough, head upstairs to the Broken Shaker, which has no roof to raise but the Los Angeles sky. Sydell struck gold when it hired Zvi and Orta to open the first Broken Shaker in Miami, in 2015. More free-floating party than brick-and-mortar establishment, with as much outdoor space as in, the public immediately dug its laid-back personality. Broker Shaker was the sort of bar Jimmy Buffett would’ve opened if he were young and cool.

Wisely or not, the Freehand decided to export the commodity. The Chicago rendition, a darkened and rather depressing nook hidden deep inside the hotel, bears so little resemblance to the original that it hardly merits the name. But the Los Angeles location strikes much closer. With its pool, plants, pink lounge chairs and unlimited oxygen, it pulsates with the life you can only get from a gaggle of thirsty twenty-somethings sipping a Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe from a brightly colored acrylic tumbler.

The cheap look belies professional rigor. Take the Trash-Tini. At first glance, it’s an ironic riff on a 1960s WASP staple, the Martini on the rocks. But the liquid is a considered mix of Grey Goose vodka, Plymouth gin, charred onion-infused Noilly Prat and Luxardo Bitter Bianco. This is accented with a few drops each of celery shrub and sherry vinegar, and garnished with an onion, a pickle and a cornichon. It tastes both cheesy and oddly sophisticated, a perfect stand-in for a cocktail one doesn’t typically associate with poolside drinking.

Take a one-block stroll to the NoMad, and trashy-chic Martinis beneath the sun give way to New York Sours under coffered ceilings. The clientele is similarly youthful, but you’ll find fewer shorts, more suits and fatter wallets. NoMad’s LA home, Giannini Place, telegraphs this aesthetic in almost laughably emphatic terms. With its Doric columns, it’s bank-building austere (it was, after all, the Bank of Italy). But those familiar with the New York institution will recognize the swank interior, including the Giannini Bar, whose menu offers many of the same cocktails found in New York. (Drinks are $16 to $18.)

There are new aspects, though. Upstairs is the Mezzanine Bar, which is reserved for those dining at the accompanying restaurant, and the Coffee Bar, which is patterned after the grand cafés of Europe and appropriately transitions to the hotel’s second cocktail bar after 5 p.m. Yet another bar is due for the roof, ensuring that NoMad will have its own complete galaxy to rival Freehand and Figueroa.

Hopping from one hotel to the next, as I did on one long, elbow-taxing day and night, offered a unique perspective into the new school of boutique hotel drinking. Every bar felt like The Place To Be—be that the accessible, yet inventive lobby bar, the intimate and serious interior bar or the party-minded rooftop bar. But, after a while, I began to feel like I was drinking at one large, connected filling station—each decorated in the same mad pursuit of instant character, each exuding the same excitable vibe and each attracting the same yammering, phone-checking clientele.

For this reason, I recommend not taking advantage of the whole universe at any hotel, but picking your planet and sticking to it. It’s the simplest, most satisfying way to savor the fact that “Meet you in the hotel bar” is now a remarkably promising proposition.

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