A formerly fetish-friendly dive in less-than-glamorous East Hollywood might not be the first place you'd think to look for L.A.'s cutting-edge cocktails. But for the team who converted the old Stone Bar into a World War II-era watering hole, reviving rundown spaces has become a trademark.
With a knack for transforming seedy dive bars into period-specific destinations, the trio behind La Descarga is aiming to breathe life into the neighborhood with its latest venture. This time, instead of transporting cocktail lovers to old Havana, Mark and Jonnie Houston, with Steve Livigni, are creating a slice of Americana, building a bar that is as much about celebrating wartime history as about craft American distillers.
Harvard & Stone's interior, reminiscent of the era of Rosie the Riveter, is a mix of industrial steampunk warehouse and a 1940s boiler room. Co-owner and designer Mark Houston reconstructed tractor seats into barstools, vintage Singer sewing machines and car jacks into tables and antique chicken feeders into lighting treatments, salvaging nostalgic elements to create a gritty, distinctly American vibe.
The spirits program at Harvard & Stone follows suit. Livigni has curated distillers from around the States that represent a distinct sense of place. He feels that the hyper-local sentiments that have dominated the culinary scene in recent years are beginning to infiltrate the world of libations.
"Two things are coming together at the right time. Consumers care about where their food and their ingredients are coming from, and people are into having well-executed food and cocktails," he says. "They're interested in what they're putting in their body. That demand met with this groundswell of craft distillers and brewers ... and I think it's going to be a big deal."
Livigni, previously the general manager of the Doheny and more recently La Descarga, will be director of operations at Harvard & Stone. Matt Wallace, formerly of 7 Grand, is serving as head bartender.
The Thai Town establishment features two distinct cocktail concepts under the same roof. Though both rely heavily on domestic craft spirits, the larger room is centered around a massive circular bar serving contemporary American cocktails, a stage for live music, scaffolding for dance performances and rigging for aerialists. The small room at the back of the space, deemed the R&D bar, showcases more culinary-style cocktails based on a featured distiller that changes weekly.
"We'll be doing more of the bespoke cocktails in the test kitchen," says Wallace. "The back is where we get to play."
The R&D bar is also a place where customers will get to interact with those making the spirits themselves. Livigni plans to have an ambassador or distiller from domestic brands visit at the beginning of each week to share the drink's story with customers, perhaps hopping behind the bar to mix drinks from time to time.
The R&D room only seats about 25 patrons, and the menu changes nightly. It serves as a place to do a trial run on cocktails that may eventually land on the main room's menu, but it also gives the venue's blossoming bartenders a chance to craft their own original recipes.
Pablo Moix, who also oversaw La Descarga's cocktail program, took his turn at the R&D bar this last Saturday, creating a menu that tipped its hat to libations of the 1990s. He updated the Sex on the Beach with peach foam and an Aviation gin base, creating a balanced, less saccharine incarnation. Moix also made a gin and mezcal jello shooter that came loaded in a syringe and a warm gin cocktail called a "hot apple cobbler" infused with house-made cinnamon butter.
The main bar's menu fluctuates less but still has plenty of unique cocktail options. Baby's First Bourbon -- a mix of orgeat syrup, lemon juice, Angostura bitters and bourbon -- is a gentle introduction for an aspiring Old Fashioned drinker. And the Fernet Cocktail, gingery and herbaceous, is the perfect nightcap to settle down a grumbly stomach after a night at the bar. Both are ideal for sipping while listening to old R&B classics, lazing on the Winston Churchill couches next to the fireplace.
"The bartenders are true craftsmen. They're making beverages that you won't see at any other bar in L.A.," says Matt Gillman, a patron who lives down the street from Harvard & Stone. "For me it's a godsend that there's a bar in this area, that's on a stretch of Hollywood that's not frequented very often by people who care about drinks. It's a place where people can come in and have a really well-crafted beverage after work or on the weekend."
That's exactly the clientele that Livigni and the Houston twins are hoping for, and they've tailored their staff as such.
"There will be very talented bartenders without suspenders on," Livigni says. "We just want it to be normal people in normal clothes making good cocktails."
Harvard & Stone
Where: 5221 Hollywood Blvd.,
When: 8 p.m.-2 a.m. nightly
Price: no cover
Info: (323) 466-6063; www.harvardandstone.com