IT'S NOT often that a chap in tails and top hat greets you and escorts you to a bar's entrance. But that initial touch of class and hint of a romantic bygone era suggests that La Cantina del Cielo (The Bar in the Sky) is one of a kind. It's within the tower that crowns Long Beach's famed Spanish Renaissance-style landmark, the 1926-built Breakers, and seems to float above downtown Long Beach, with an eagle's eye view of the Queen Mary and busy harbor beyond.
Your journey to the top starts with a walk down the Breakers' 1940s-era cream-and-gold-leaf-trimmed hallway off Locust Avenue, past miniature models of historic Long Beach and a wedding chapel, to meet Martin, the top-hatted doorman. He takes guests up the most compact of vintage elevators to the former hotel penthouse, now Long Beach's special-occasion restaurant, the Sky Room, complete with jazzy weekend entertainment and a business casual dress code. For those who don't meet the Art Deco-style Sky Room's sartorial requirements, the bar is a welcoming alternative.
To enter the bar means climbing the steepest of staircases; there's a real "Vertigo" moment when you look down 16 stories before walking out onto the narrow, open-air balcony. "Wow" is the common reaction to the unexpected, all-encompassing view. Downtown Long Beach surrounds, and to the left, framed by a picturesque arch, are the now smokeless stacks of the Queen Mary and the port's main channel.
The decor is heavenly hacienda -- numerous wrought-iron fixtures, candles, Spanish tile and a space that oozes romance -- and changing weather conditions. On a recent Saturday night, a brisk breeze chilled ladies in strappy dresses. Some chose to sit at the small tiled bar; others picked a quiet corner banquette under softly lighted sconces.
Converging here are the ubiquitous, mid-50s, California guy in the faded floral Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt, the rakish fellow in the slim-brimmed fedora (and Chuck Taylors, of course) and those who revel in historic places and are formally dressed for the part. "If it's Deco, I'm there," says John Thomas, vice president of the Art Deco Society, whose organization hosts an annual "Cocktails in Historic Places" event at La Cantina.
Per Thomas, the cosmopolitan is the reigning Art Deco Society beverage of choice. Those who are flush can order up bartender Frank Rodarate's ultimate margarita for $60 -- AsomBroso tequila with a floater of Grand Marnier Cent Cinquantenaire -- a blend of 50-year-old cognacs and bitter orange essence. The bar's signature drink is the Raspberry Rosenson Lemon Drop, a citrus-y vodka cocktail named for the building's owner, Bernard Rosenson, who in late 2006 transformed the unused tower into the most elevated of lounges.
"Sharing is big at La Cantina," explains Rodarate. A tapas menu is available: charcuterie, olive plate or oversized tiger shrimp are among the choices, as well as the Sky Room's full menu. The vibe is friendly, due in part to the shared adventure of climbing those dizzying stairs and also thanks to Rodarate, who welcomes visitors by explaining the former resort's rich heritage, including onetime owner Conrad Hilton and the WWII gun turret just above.
Summertime, when the weather is fine and the day lingers, the bar welcomes crowds of wedding guests, celebrating friends and vacationing Midwesterners; however, on a cool, midwinter's night, you might have the view and the serene, one-of-a kind aerie all to yourself.
LA CANTINA DEL CIELO
WHERE: Above the Sky Room atop the Breakers, 40 S. Locust Ave., Long Beach
WHEN: 5:30 p.m.-close, Thursday-Saturday
PRICE: No cover except major holidays that involve fireworks
INFO: (562) 983-2703