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Liquid Assets

Where to sip L.A.'s best cocktails--and what to wear

February 25, 2001|HEATHER JOHN | Heather John is a senior editor at the magazine

What is the difference between a cocktail and a drink, you ask? A drink is but a Machiavellian means to a numbing end--with little attention paid to quality. In the wake of "Swingers," L.A. has been deluged with second-rate martinis, albeit in uber hip surrounds, but those are mere drinks. The cocktail, on the other hand, is a practiced art form, with many pretenders to the throne. In the following tour of Los Angeles' cocktail heirs apparent, alchemy--not atmosphere--reigns supreme.

Any martini drinker worth her weight in olives will point you to Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Boulevard--a landmark of a chophouse with a sprawling bar that invites lingering. It is perhaps the only joint in the city where the waiters (many of whom have been on staff for 20-odd years) still have the decency in vodka-centric L.A. to ask "Gin or vodka?" when you order a classic martini. My friend Martin describes the concoction as "near perfect," though he's willing to forgive a slightly liberal splash of vermouth when the waiter pours the excess mixture from the shaker into a glass sidecar and places it by his drink. It's like Christmas, a little extra gift bestowed on all mixed-drink orders, which is precisely why Musso & Frank's Manhattan also ranks as the best in town. There's no attitude here--on an evening when I'm nursing mine, they fill a water glass with ice and nestle the sidecar within to keep it chilled, and they don't bat an eye when I ask for two more cherries.

For the purist, it's hard to beat Campanile on La Brea Avenue. The martinis here are flawless and served in a generous glass. Of course, the '90s bred some irresistible martini hybrids, which have made their way into L.A.'s cocktail vernacular. Lola's on Fairfax Avenue, for instance, shakes up the definitive apple martini, with a thin slice of McIntosh apple floating atop. It's a favorite with their ready-for-their-closeup hipster crowd. For the been-there-done-that clientele at the Ivy on Robertson Boulevard, however, the Cajun martini takes this genre to its zenith, and I have to admit that I wish I'd thought of the chopped jalapeno garnish myself. Smooth but with a kick, it's spicy without being overpowering--an ideal prelude to their Louisiana black pepper shrimp. Though the A-listers have forgotten Muse on Beverly Boulevard--you can shoot a cannon through the restaurant on any given weeknight--their lemon drop still sets the standard. Better yet, try the house specialty, a pineapple-infused white tequila elixir, which comes in a chilled martini glass. Voda on 2nd Street in Santa Monica boasts an inspired list of interpretive martinis, particularly the Diamond martini, which involves peach schnapps and a floating edible flower. Ultimately, however, the medal for creativity goes to Hal's Bar & Grill on Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice. Bartender Liam Seide's cantaloupe martini is sublime (a dash of orange juice lends it color)--not too sweet and garnished with two tiny scoops of honeydew speared on a toothpick.

I'll concede that pretty packaging helps the medicine go down, and this is certainly the case with the Avalon Hotel's eponymous drink. I never thought I'd enjoy something blue in color (one sip of a chalky Blue Hawaiian five years ago at the Tonga Room in San Francisco convinced me that Elvis was seriously disturbed), but this dashing little drink tastes as if you're on vacation, and its perfectly architectural lemon twist fits right in with this quiet lounge's sleek midcentury decor. Some of the city's most lethal, and delicious, cocktails are found at Los Feliz's Tiki Ti bar on Sunset Boulevard. In this intimate and smoky cash-only Polynesian-inspired dive, barkeeps wear loud Hawaiian shirts, the drinks menu is written on tiki masks hanging from the wall and you have to fight your way to the restrooms through a beaded divider. (Think Greg Brady's bachelor pad meets Trader Vic's.) There are 70-some concoctions to choose from and, word to the wise, select your drink carefully. One night my friend Jill unwittingly orders a house specialty, Blood and Sand--a mix of scotch and several citrus juices--and on cue the bar starts chanting, "To-ro, to-ro, to-ro." To avoid bloodshed, stick with an equally tasty Bayanihan or a Sufferin' B, and remain anonymous. If you're not in a smoke-gets-in-your-eyes kind of mood, try Hollywood's Lava Lounge on La Brea. Kitschy rattan walls, mood lighting and loud live music pack in a serious crowd, but if you can muscle your way to the bar, one of the city's best mai tais awaits you, served in a dauntingly large glass with a sparkling tinsel-wrapped straw and a generous wedge of pineapple. Note to self: designate a driver.

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