In downtown L.A.'s old Bank District, two new nightspots are concocting different approaches to draw cash-strapped drinkers in uncertain economic times. One wine-and-beer spot, the Must, is employing a slash-and-burn policy of serving well-liked wines on the cheap ($3 during happy hour, for example), while the other -- the homespun, tiny Varnish -- is hoping classic cocktails and a hidden location might lure those eager to squire their dates to a speak-easy-style boite.
"The more bars that come downtown, the better," said Coly Den Haan, owner of the Must. The 30-year-old first-time bar owner had better hope she's right.
A more upscale wine bar, Corkbar, opened Thursday near L.A. Live, and an outpost of Culver City's BottleRock is finally set to open downtown this spring after several delays. All of this, of course, is in addition to the many Bank District newcomers such as the Crocker Club and well-established options such as Pete's.
But for now, the Must is doing well with area residents who appreciate the simplicity and comfortable design (exposed air ducts with Tom Dixon light fixtures and cozy booths set against windows looking out onto 5th Street), as well as the name.
"The name is a play on words, like, you know, you 'must' try our black sangria," Den Haan said, but it also holds special meaning to those who know a bit about vino. "When you take grapes and first start to crush them, that big mash is called 'the must.' " For the uninitiated, the nearly 2,000-square-foot space, which opened in late December, features a wine list with a "cheat sheet" -- one-line descriptions of the reds and whites (a 2004 Cascina Ca'Rossa Mompissano Roero is described as "rockin' rose petals").
"My wine list appeals to people who don't know what they're doing," she said. "But people who do know wine will also find something they like." Den Haan's casual approach is resonating with the neighborhood's loft-leasing lot so far. "It shouldn't feel like homework getting a drink," added her partner in the endeavor, set designer Rachel Thompson.
On a recent Tuesday, the bar was buzzing with tattooed artists and a few young urban professionals who stayed late to eat. (The Must has a diverse yet reasonably priced food menu and has tapped MaryAnn Salcedo, a former sous-chef from Gordon Ramsay's reality cooking competition, "Hell's Kitchen," as its chef.)
"When I started this bar, everyone said I was crazy to open in this economy," Den Haan said. "But I just make sure every night we have a $5 glass of wine and a $25 glass of wine on the menu, and customers seem happy."
And though the Must is enjoying growing crowds lately thanks to strong word of mouth, it's becoming evident that Pinot-pushers and cocktail cowboys will either have to lower prices even further or get creative to attract drinkers as bars proliferate downtown.
Two blocks away from the Must, Cedd Moses and Eric Alperin's Varnish is going the creative route.
"You can have a gourmet meal any time, why not a gourmet cocktail?" said Alperin, whose under-50-capacity space actually lies within Cole's at the back of the restaurant. In a clever bit of marketing, Varnish, which is accessible only via an unmarked wooden door, is attempting to win over cocktail connoisseurs via a throwback vibe that feels straight out of the 1920s and serves up reverential takes on classic Prohibition-era cocktails such as Stingers (brandy, creme de menthe and crushed iced).
"I want all walks of life in here, not just 'cool' people," Alperin, 32, said of his lounge, which has mahogany walls, harbor pendant lamps hanging above tiny cafe tables and booths made of Douglas fir backs with olive leather cushion seats. "The barmen here spend time in choosing their spirits without letting the liquor companies dictate what types of liquor they use."
Though Varnish is not necessarily a true speak-easy (there's no password, for example), it certainly helps that it is a bit difficult to spot. "It's not a secret, but we do fill up fast, so we don't want too many people inside," he said. "We just wanted to create something intimate." Launched with minimal fanfare late last month, the scene at Varnish is still developing.
"I liked the interior, and it has a really nice vibe," said recent downtown emigre and Lucha VaVoom founder Rita D'Albert. "The bartender made me a delicious Karma Fizz."
But at least one neighborhood resident would rather just grab some cheap wine at the Must instead of splurge on an $11 cocktail.
"I get the whole mixology thing and I like the natural ingredients in all the drinks, but it's still too expensive," said Erin Carnes at the Must during happy hour. "If I know I can get drinks of the same quality for less, I'll go to that bar."
Where: 118 W. 5th St., L.A.
When: 5 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Saturdays
Price: No cover
Contact: (213) 637-1162, www.themustbar.com
Where: 118 E. 6th St., L.A.
When: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays through Fridays, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays
Price: No cover
Contact: (213) 622-9999, www.thevarnishbar.com