Bartenders understand bars, and there’s a reason why Mike Capoferri’s Thunderbolt is a favorite among LA’s bar staff who know where to find not just a fantastic drink, but an even better atmosphere. By expertly combining those two things, Capoferri has one of the best bars in the world, and certainly in this city.
Tucked away in Historic Filipinotown, the bar, which opened in late 2019, is an unexpected mashup of advanced tech and approachable, reasonably priced cocktails. They also serve a menu of classic Southern food that’s all gluten-free, a nod to Capoferri’s roots in Atlanta as well as a boon for LA’s GF diners. So what makes this bar so good? First, an utter lack of pretension. “I had this luxury of my job being going to bars for a little over four years, when I was an ambassador for Campari,” Capoferri says, whose hospitality career launched while washing dishes at age 14 and later included time at Soho House and 432 Fairfax, commonly referred to as No Name bar. “At the time, there was a little too much of the arm gartered, curly mustached, bad-attitude bartenders. The ‘cool guy.’ It’s exclusive, [and] it makes people feel dumb if they don’t know everything about classic cocktails. Our ethos was to remove any pretentiousness and any superfluous fluff from having a great drink.”
Most of the drinks on Thunderbolt’s menu take at least two days to make — that’s the behind-the-scenes, high-tech element that only bartenders and cocktail aficionados will pick up on. “The trick with Thunderbolt is how do we communicate to people, ‘Yes, you got your drink in five seconds, but it took two days to make it,’” he says. “It’s not because it’s shitty, cheap or an afterthought. It’s because we’ve built this bar around technology that no one else has to be able to serve this drink hyperfast. That’s sort of the ethos, but we keep it super friendly, super casual. It’s very informal, and just a neighborhood bar.”
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Some of the tech includes things like putting an ingredient like pineapple through a centrifuge to clarify it and custom refrigerators that get complete cocktails to an exact temperature where forced carbonation is possible. During the pandemic, some of this technology gave Thunderbolt the ability to can its drinks, but they’re not designed to be ready-to-drink at home, but rather to be enjoyed in a bar environment. And a huge part of the environment at Capoferri’s bar comes down to the staff.
“We hire people who are super humble, who want to learn and who just love service and hospitality,” he says. “These are people who are hospitality veterans, who know how to talk to people and know how to be a great master of ceremonies behind the bar. Our staff loves the craft, loves what they do and loves waiting on other bartenders. That’s really the dream — if your bar is full of other hospitality people, you’re having a great night.”
Whether you’re sitting next to a neighborhood bartender, a group of locals or someone who read the latest version of North America’s 50 Best Bars list — where Thunderbolt is #10 and was named “Best in the West” — the other draw is undoubtedly their Southern hospitality, which is a natural accompaniment to the biscuits and chicken. “Buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken are the staples here, but the type of hospitality and the familiarity with which we greet people is the most southern thing about Thunderbolt,” Capoferri says. “This is the bar for everybody — it’s a super inclusive bar. There’s no ‘cool enough to come here’ vibe.”
The bar itself is named for a little town just outside of Savannah, Georgia, and the Peach Thunderbolt — a rum-based Mint Julep with Georgia peaches from Charles Baker’s The Gentleman’s Companion — is what inspired all the imagery in the bar. Think dark green walls, light pink touches and fluorescent orange stools inside, with light wood to balance it all out. With both indoor and outdoor spaces, it’s a place where there’s very rarely a line, and no need for reservations. In a land of speakeasies and stiff hotel bars, Thunderbolt’s atmosphere is completely ‘come as you are,’ and that’s exactly how Capoferri likes it.
“The biggest thing is being able to transport people a little bit,” he says. “You go to a bar because you want a getaway. You don’t have to be a themed bar or a speakeasy to do that. A great bar comes down to great people who care about hospitality.”
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