Patrons enjoy the speak easy vibe at Koreatown's new craft cocktail… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
So many doorknobs, so few correct choices.
That's the dilemma drinkers face night after night in Los Angeles, which becomes a literal question at Lock & Key, Koreatown's new speak-easy and craft cocktail bar. Upon entering the signless box of a building on Vermont and 3rd you find yourself in a dim, rectangular room painted black. Its walls are covered with vintage doorknobs and you're instructed to choose the one that will open the actual door to the bar.
"You're getting warmer," the dapper doorman will say as you grope around in the dark, placing your hand on a promising-looking cut glass doorknob and then a tarnished brass one. (Fair warning: The door isn't where you think it should be, it turns out.)
But once you choose the right knob you're through the looking glass — leaving behind the tumult of the dirty street outside and entering a slick new domain of mirrored ceilings, tufted forest green banquettes and toasted sesame oil-scented cocktails.
The lounge fills a void in K-Town's rich and racy night-life scene where karaoke and beer bars dominate a landscape scented with the heat of a thousand table-top barbecues. In this heady milieu, Crown Royal whisky flows as freely as tequila on the 5th of May but you'd be hard-pressed to find a well-made Sazerac. This is not meant to dismiss the joys of knocking back a Blue Hawaiian at the Prince, a solid gin martini at the HMS Bounty, or of listening to a cool new band at R Bar.
But when you can have all that, plus a tasty drink called the Razzle-Dazzle made with rye gin and elderflower liqueur, why not make a night of it?
"The demographic in K-Town is really great," says Lock & Key owner Cyrus Batchan, an attorney and real estate broker who opened the bar a week ago with several partners. "Rent is cheap, there's great food, things stay open late and there are a lot of students."
Batchan grew up in Riverside, where he watched his family build restaurants from the ground up. He became attracted to the trade, even working as the director of bars and entertainment for the W Hotel in San Diego while he was in law school. When he moved to L.A. after graduating, he held onto the idea of eventually opening up a fun lounge concept on the side.
With Lock & Key he feels that he's on the way to realizing his dream. He also lucked out because the bar has a kitchen (with a takeout window on the street), which he's calling Stall 239. The idea is grab-and-go global street food for an affordable price. Nothing on the menu (except for a hefty, meat-stuffed sandwich) is more than $5. Options include lollipop chicken wings with spicy Sichuan sauce; a kalbi smash sandwich with marinated Korean short rib on a ciabatta roll smothered in mashed potatoes (the latter ingredient came cold on a recent visit, which seemed an odd choice); and butter garlic fries.
"I travel all over the world and wherever you go, 90% of the time people are grabbing stuff from food stalls," says Batchan, adding that his favorite menu item, a fried chicken sandwich with spicy coleslaw called the Angry Bird is based on a sandwich he once ate at a night market in Taiwan.
Lock & Key is too new to have settled into its ways as a gathering spot yet, but on a recent Tuesday in the early evening hours the place buzzed with tables of smartly dressed customers, many in large groups. The pace inside was relaxed as dictated by the significant lead time it takes to create a craft cocktail.
"Our drinks take love," an extremely pleasant server named Kristine Scoles explained to a table of revelers unfamiliar with the myriad jokes about the speed of modern mixology. They nodded, momentarily sated by buttery fries.
"He likes to party with Charlie Sheen in Tijuana," one of them said of their companion, turning back to the conversation at hand. And just like that, a hopeful new bar in Koreatown opened the door to another night in Los Angeles.