Fiddler Conor Dance warms up on the balcony at Club Sassafras. (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Bobby Green's new bar, Sassafras, is south of Hollywood Boulevard, near Fountain. But it might as well be south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Step inside and you'll see an actual Savannah, Ga., town house that was disassembled, trucked to Hollywood and reassembled inside the bar. The resulting ambience in the 3,500-square-foot room proves you can take the house out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the house.
"Nothing here is bought from a store," says Green of his latest, most ambitious project, which took nearly two years to complete and is also his first bar to host live music — Southern roots, brass and jazz. "Everything I used to create the space is antique and comes from junkyards, scrap yards and salvage yards."
As the design visionary behind the night-life company 1933 Group, which he shares with partners Dimitri Komarov and Dmitry Liberman, Green has made a name for himself via elaborately themed bars including the Bigfoot Lodge, Thirsty Crow and Oldfield's Liquor Room. With Sassafras he may have just become the modern incarnation of Clifford Clinton, the man who opened the legendarily theatrical and kitschy Clifton's Cafeteria chain in the 1930s.
Prohibition-era style, including the attendant old-timey hats, bow ties and suspenders, are on display on the meticulous bar staff, but Sassafras is no speakeasy. It's about re-creating the rich, relaxed hospitality of the South — the kind Green and his bar staff encountered three years ago in New Orleans during the annual Tales of the Cocktail bartending convention.
"We started having these conversations about why we loved the place and how friendly everybody was," says Green of New Orleans. "And that sparked the creation of Sassafras. We said, 'Let's try to find a way to create that same feeling in L.A.'"
Once they had the space — the former Vine Bar, which is comfortably off the beaten track in Hollywood — Green set about finding all the right decorative touches to re-create a Southern Gothic party house. You can see three sides of the actual Savannah town house when you step inside the bar — its sullen white walls are covered in lovely black mold and moss hangs from the ceiling. The vintage embellishments are endless: There are old oil paintings, frayed woven rugs, fringed brass lamps with clocks in their posts, sailboats in glass and a stuffed bear roaring on its hind legs in a corner.
"It's been a labor of love, and this is definitely our baby," says Green's partner, Komarov. "Bobby has an eye for detail and lighting that's just gotten better and better with every project."
The cocktails also get more ambitious with each project. At Sassafras, bar manager Jared Mort and head bartender Aaron Stepka have created an entire program around barrel-aged cocktails, which involves letting the ingredients of a cocktail rest inside charred oak barrels to produce a softened flavor profile redolent with rich notes of oak, vanilla and cherry. Some bars have one or two barrel-aged cocktails, but Sassafras has seven. Colored glass bottles holding these cocktails hang from a converted dry cleaning rack that circles above the main bar.
To create the drink list, which includes a languid Blackstrap Old Fashioned made with Buffalo Trace whiskey, blackstrap molasses and housemade cherry-vanilla bitters, and a dangerously drinkable dance partner named Sassafras Royale made with rye, housemade sassafras bitters, egg, malted milk powder and house-brewed sarsaparilla, Stepka says they fixated on flavors that reminded them of the South. These included pecans, peaches, cherry vanilla and apple pie.
"It's quite a challenge to have so many homemade ingredients in a bar of this volume," says Stepka of the bar program, which includes three kinds of home-brewed ginger beer among legions of artisanal bitters. "We're batching huge amounts to cover ourselves for a couple of months."
All the behind-the-scenes stress and bustle is not apparent in the front of the house, however, where patrons can slow-sip a freezing-cold mint julep and snack on small plates of pickled eggs, grits and shrimp and jambalaya around a scratched wooden table or on a cozy love seat, while on a balcony above them a brass band plays at a sane volume level.
Southern music will be a big part of the scene at Sassafras, with bands such as the Dustbowl Revival and the Downtown Train performing about three nights a week. The bands will be present to add to the general vibe of the room, says Green, not to make people feel they have to devote their full attention to them.
"I don't want it to be a live-music venue in the traditional sense," he says. "The music is there to enjoy. It adds another layer to the ambience."
Where: 1233 Vine St., L.A.
When: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Price: Cocktails, $11 to $13; small plates, $5 to $10
Info: (323) 467-2800; http://www.sassafrassaloon.com