The classic cocktail revival is merging into the mainstream. It's been a longish journey, kicked off in New York earlier this decade, elevated to an art form in San Francisco and all but taking over a certain segment of Los Angeles' increasingly sophisticated late-night set.
But now, classic cocktails with a twist have come to a hotel chain near you — or they will be soon — as drinks of a bygone era are served up with a new dose of modern bohemian décor. These new spots are markedly different than those charmingly themed wood-trimmed bars such as downtown's Varnish that turn to the 1920s for design cues.
Case in point: Sip, a small new lounge in the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel, which trend-chasing owners hope will lure not just hotel guests, but other cosmopolitan locals as well. It's a new incarnation for a Long Beach bar not exactly known for mixologists serving up Manhattans.
"Long Beach has nothing like this," said Nusrat Mirza, general manager of the Renaissance Long Beach Hotel. He sits inside the 5,900-square-foot indoor/outdoor space, formerly Tracht's restaurant, over a Le Demon Vert No. 2 (with absinthe, velvet falernum, fresh lime juice and egg whites). "People are looking for places that aren't too loud in a lounge setting. We tried fine dining here, but it didn't work. We wanted a casual bar with great cocktails."
But launching Sip instead of another name-chef dining destination was not entirely Mirza's decision. The modern meeting spot with high ceilings, zebra-print chairs and a backlit onyx bar is an across-the-chain development for the Marriott's upscale Renaissance brand. The rollout was set into motion by executives influenced by cocktail-centric scenes they saw flourishing in New York and Los Angeles at top performers such as the Edison.
"Bars like Milk & Honey in New York and Seven Grand in L.A. are the ones we felt were a natural fit for our brand," said Lou Trope, vice president of restaurants and bars for Marriott International, about the inspiration for Sip and its sister bars.
Bars such as Cedd Moses' cozy Seven Grand may be a great inspiration, but the unique energy and passion of bartenders at the downtown Los Angeles destination is not so easy to replicate.
For the bar patron just in town for a convention, however, maybe a good Sazerac is already a positive change. Trope's master plan revolves around casual drinking dens serving specialty cocktails made from fresh ingredients and catering to increasingly discerning palettes. Conspicuously missing from this mix are the flavored martinis that were all the rage at suburban hotel bars as recently as 2005. Marriott's new night life strategy has produced three California bars including Sip, which opened officially in June, the recently opened Mixing Room at the JW Marriott at L.A. Live and San Francisco's Aurea restaurant bar.
The menus for all three bars were developed by Francesco Lafranconi, director of mixology and spirits educator for Southern Wine & Spirits of America.
"We've been working on this for years," he said of the Marriott project. "American consumers are starting to become more aware of fresh ingredients in cocktails and that's not going to change any time soon."
Of course, even in Long Beach, less-styled hotel bars have long been the place to go for a perfect Pisco Sour (see the Sky Room across Ocean Boulevard from Sip), and hotels have been using consultants to fine tune menus for decades.
What is notable, however, is the sheer scale of Marriott's faith in the classic cocktail for their emerging night life strategy. Guests and locals alike can now take their Aviation with average house music gently thumping in the background, as it did at Sip on a recent weeknight, in more than 100 Renaissance and Marriott hotel bars from Las Vegas to London.
And even though Lafranconi's libations are indeed inspired (his gin-based Sorisso with cherry heering, Harvey's Bristol Crème and Angostura bitters is a winner), the drinks are only as good as the bartenders making them.
At Sip, a mojito surrogate dubbed Cuban Society fell flat — undermined by flavorless mint and not enough rum.
"It's like a line cook at Olive Garden," Lafranconi said of the bartenders making his creations. "[The bartenders] have specific recipes and everyone has to comply … but you can never be 100% sure they are."
Not many seemed to mind on a recent Tuesday at Sip if their cocktails were mixed perfectly or not. During happy hour, the concoctions, such as Sip's cachaca-based Batida de Abacaxi, go for just $6, which suits locals just fine.
"It used to be more formal here, but it's more relaxed now," said Tina Rothermund, 37, a Swiss architect who lives nearby. "The drinks and food are fantastic."
Susan Samuelson, a hotel guest from a nearby competitor, was more impressed. "This feels like a real New York bar," she said of the space with 35-foot-tall ceilings and large hanging orange lamps between sips of a vodka gimlet. "It's sophisticated."
Where: 111 East Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.
When: 11 a.m.- midnight Sun.-Thur., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.-Sat.
Price: No cover, cocktails from $6 to $11 (beer & wine from $4)
Contact: (562) 499-2533; http://www.siplongbeach.com