Who better to recommend the best bars in any given city than the people who spend more time in them than anyone else? Welcome to our Best Bars in the United States series, where we’ve asked our favorite bartenders in the nation to select their most beloved drinking establishments in their city.
Figuring out the best bars is a difficult task in any city, let alone a hospitality haven like Los Angeles. With all the different areas, sub-neighborhoods and bar styles, we figured the best way to get a truly diverse and expertly researched list of bars across the City of Angels was to go straight to the source — that is, the professionals working behind the stick.
Full disclosure: four out of 10 bartenders tried to pick Thunderbolt as the best bar, so that’s the de facto winner of this list. But in the interest of giving you more recommendations and shine to some other places, we limited Mike Capoferri’s excellent joint in Historic Filipinotown to just one slot. There’s plenty of other great places to enjoy libations in Los Angeles, so here’s a curated list of the best bars to imbibe great drinks in dark spaces, according to local bartenders themselves.
Karl Steuck, the bartender-at-large and founder of Spirit & Spoon, has spent the past 24 years working in bars and restaurants, with 18 of those years spent working in LA — so he knows the scene well. “There is no shortage of amazing bars and bartenders in LA, and I think we’re often overlooked, possibly because there are numerous programs that continue to raise the bar,” he says. “With that said, one of my absolute favorite bars in LA is Melrose Umbrella Co. Ever since I visited for the first time more than a decade ago, it’s just felt like an industry home. From countless coffee meetings during the day to many nights hanging with friends, it always just feels right to me. The owners Zach Petterson and Austin Melrose and the talented bar staff always make you feel welcome in a very non pretentious way.”
Ramsey Musk recently took over as beverage director at Accomplice Bar, and under his direction, it earned honorable mentions from several of the bartenders surveyed. There’s a nostalgic tie-in to his pick for best bar. “My favorite bar right now is probably Capri Club,” he says. “Daniel and Pete have put together an amazing team, delightful cocktails and just a good ass time. I also feel like I’m in my Italian grandparents’ basement, which is part of why I love this place. Their amaro and bitter selection is great, and the wines are delish. I think they are doing it all really well, and I always have the best time with this crew.”
Born in Mexico, Karla Flores learned to hustle at a young age, first under tutelage in her mother’s kitchen and then doing her own cocktail pop-ups. Obsessed with creating fun environments, she is now the beverage director of Park Hospitality and co-owner of Bar Flores. “There are so many great cocktail bars and restaurants in Los Angeles that it’s hard to choose just one,” she says. “However, when a favorite comes to mind, it’s about more than just what’s in the glass. I enjoy grabbing a seat at Redbird. I always hit the jackpot when I order a cocktail off their menu or opt for the bartender’s choice. I love sitting there and trying fun new concoctions they’ve been working on, as well as chatting with Tobin Shea.”
Mike Capoferri, the owner of Thunderbolt, is a 23-year hospitality industry veteran originally from Atlanta who has extensive experience working in bars there, as well as in LA and New York. Thunderbolt, opened in 2019, has racked up quite a list of honors, including “One to Watch” by World’s 50 Best Bars, #9 in North America and “Best in the West” by World’s 50 Best Bars and Best Bar in LA by Time Out. So we totally trust his judgement when it comes to his pick for the best bar in LA. “Max Reis at Mirate is doing some of the most exciting things with cocktails in LA right now,” he says. “His high-tech program keeps the menu exciting but never overshadows the highly-curated selection of agave spirits — the true stars of the bar program.”
With more than 15 years in the cocktail industry, Brynn Smith — creative bar director for Bar Next Door and founder of Bartending Pretty — has developed a self-described “voracious passion” for cocktails and other libations. “For a sexy night out, I recommend Death & Co,” she says. “It’s got so many elements that make it a standout: interesting libations made by skilled bartenders, beautiful glassware and garnishes and dark, moody vibes with twinkling candles. Their food is also so delicious and beautifully plated.”
Miles Caballes got his start in the cocktail world at Death & Co. and is currently the lead bartender at The Varnish. But he’s been in hospitality for most of his working life, so he knows a thing or two about what makes a bar a worthwhile destination. “My favorite bar in LA is a place called OyBar in Studio City,” he says. “It used to be a place called the Bar and Oyster House, and it was bought out by a gentleman, Jeff Strauss, who runs another restaurant called Jeff’s Table. It’s a total revamp. The bar used to be a hyper-dive, and now they essentially kept the same dive aesthetic but with an awesome back bar, great cocktails and really good food, too. It’s a really great neighborhood spot. Typically on the menu they run a bunch of classics, but often when I go in there I just get a shot and a beer — a Miller High Life and either Laird’s Apple Brandy or Rittenhouse Rye — and then I follow that with a cool straight up cocktail, usually a Hanky Panky. They also make a really good AMF (Adios Motherfucker).”
Tobin Shea has been the bartender at Redbird for 28 years and counting, a nationally recognized, beautiful restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. “Although I love the more modern bars like Thunderbolt and Death and Co., I really love the classic old Hollywood bars, especially Musso and Frank,” he says. “You definitely have to be selective on what you order, but the Martinis flow like water there. Lately though, I’ve been drinking the Harvard cocktail, essentially a Manhattan made with Courvoisier VSOP.”
Jason Lee has been working in the service industry for 15 years and has been behind the bar for the last six or seven. Prior to becoming the beverage director at acclaimed Silverlake Indian-Italian fusion restaurant Pijja Palace, he headed the bar program at Kali and was the opening beverage director at N/Soto. “As far as cocktail bars go, like a lot of people, I’d probably go with Thunderbolt,” he says. “It’s been changing for the better recently, but I think for a long time a lot of bars and bartenders in Los Angeles came from the same lineage/family tree and had a lot of similar things to offer as a result. But Thunderbolt feels a lot more modern without really drawing too much attention to the amount of prep and science that goes into what they do. They do a great job of doing things that fit in with what people tend to gravitate toward in LA but in a way that feels smart and fresh.”
Thunderbolt Is Currently the Best Bar in LASouthern cooking, Southern hospitality and a superior roster of best-in-class drinks
Matthew De Marte, general manager and beverage director at Connie & Ted’s, was most recently the brains behind the P-22 Cocktail, a specialty Four Roses Bourbon drink honoring the Los Angeles mountain lion with proceeds donated to benefit the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing Fund. “The best bar in LA is Lounge Ohjah in the Miyako Hotel in the Little Tokyo area of downtown Los Angeles, a traditional Japanese karaoke bar in my neighborhood,” he says. It has six seats at the bar and lounge seating for about five or six small groups. They do not fool around here — Yuka the manager runs a tight ship. There is a cover charge. There is a minimum. This is not a frat boy karaoke bar. Some may think it is boring (go ahead and think that), but they just don’t get it. It’s Lounge Ohjah, and it’s sophisticated and civilized.”
Max Reis is a native Angeleno and agave specialist who currently runs the bar program at Mirate in Los Feliz. Previously, he worked at LA establishments like Gracias Madre and Republique. Wherever he goes, Reis highlights ethical sourcing, consumer education and modern cocktail techniques. “One of my favorite bars in Los Angeles is Alma’s in Virgil Village,” he says. “From the first moment you walk in, you understand immediately it’s a special place. They serve almost exclusively cider — one of the largest and most well thought-out collections in the state — and boast a simple and eclectic food menu executable by a single bartender. Every detail of this tiny bar is dialed in and will leave you examining its many eccentricities your entire visit. Although it’s a bar I often find myself stopping by for a cacio e pepe waffle and exploring their massive cider selection, the details reach down to all offerings: a boilermaker of pommeau de normandie, an approachable natural wine list and one of my favorite unusual offerings, a ‘side pull beer tap’ showcasing Czech-style lagers served with a hyper-controlled head-to-beer ratio. The outside bar counter showcases well-lit and meticulously assembled miniature cityscapes, a la Beetlejuice nestled below where you rest your beverage. Most importantly, every time I come in, I make friends, be it with locals, winemakers, cider makers or bartenders. And every time I bring a friend to Alma’s, the look of appreciation on their face says it all.”
As a 23-year veteran in the hospitality and entertainment industries, Desiree Caminos, bar manager at Proabition, has a keen eye for detail and is able to see things from the guest’s point of view. “I’ve also directed the beverage and art department at Library Bar on 6th & Hope,” she says. “The punny cocktail concept cannot be missed if you’re thirsting for some literature selections such as Gone With The Gin, Tequila Mockingbird or Blackberry Finn, to name a few.”
Bridget Bower, bartender at the Roger Room and Edendale, has been bartending for about 10 years between Seattle, Australia, New Zealand and, most recently, LA. Her favorite bar also has some nostalgia attached to it. “I have a lot of favorite bars in Los Angeles, but I’m gonna go with Crawfords on Beverly for my top pick,” she says. I grew up in a small farming town, so there’s something really nostalgic about drinking ice cold mugs of Bud Light or Coors on tap, and $4 for a beer today in LA is too good to pass up. Crawfords is a hangout spot and where I take anyone visiting from out of town. Their spicy fried chicken is delicious, the food and drinks are cheap and the bartenders are cool, so I always make sure to tip extra well!”
Taylor Cloyes, the former bar director of Bavel and Here & Now, is a self-proclaimed global cocktail competition pony, storytelling nerd and over-enthusiastic helper. When she needs to dance it out, she turns to her favorite bar in the Arts District. “When it’s time to shake loose, I love The Let’s Go Disco — that team is new, but it’s the Bulls in the ‘90s,” she says. “They’re nurturing and building something really special and make me feel like Norm from Cheers when I walk in, and it isn’t just me. That’s the magic.”
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