by Ken Walczak
In which our intrepid correspondent manages to escape the reality distortion field surrounding Prohibition-style cocktail bars, and to secure a decent drink without a password or a reservation.
This “speakeasy” thing has been going on for a while now, and I am still not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, adherence to the overall speakeasy concept – place is really hard to find, little or no signage, password at the door, maybe it’s a private club and you need a reservation, lots of persnickety rules about how to order – is a pretty reliable indicator that a bar will serve you a quality cocktail. On the other hand, passwords and memberships and the whole rigamarole … it adds up to a lot of effort just to do something (i.e., drinking) I’m ostensibly doing to relax. And if you live someplace where the speakeasy trend has caught on, chances are there are also bars nearby that will make you a quality cocktail without any hoops dragged over from the Dark Times, when folks had to jump just to stay ahead of the law.
The way that people talk or write about speakeasies also contributes to my ambivalence, in ways that are best explained if I tell you a little about the television show Platinum Hit. On Platinum Hit, judges Kara DioGuardi and Jewel preside over the weekly songwriting efforts of a gaggle of deluded narcissists, lunatics, and hipsters. It’s just like Top Chef, except the Quickfire is a “Hook Challenge,” the “Elimination Challenge” is a group songwriting exercise that inevitably devolves into screaming and tears, and both of the judges are the gorgeous, ass-kicking one (aka “the Gail Simmons”). It’s a really good show.
This being the DVR age and all, of course I began my experience with Platinum Hit by watching the first three episodes in rapid succession. As a result, I’ve spent the past week with a head full of stitched-together song snippet earworms. As I commute or wash the dishes, my brain will conjure up the best few seconds from one songlet or another: arresting hooks ruined by groupthink, beautiful scraps of melody left on the cutting room floor, awesomely bizarre turns of phrase (“paint this club with amazing”!) buried in the middle of mediocre songs. Then (and this is where I take my cue from the delusions of Talent and Potential Fame that I just mainlined) I start trying to mentally stitch together this bric-à-brac into some best-case-scenario version of the bland ditty Bravo will sell you for $1.29 each.
People who write about speakeasies tend to have a similar problem. They splice together all the best elements from their memories (attention to detail in the drinks and décor, a more personal approach to service, the overall ambience) while leaving out all the less desirable stuff (membership fees, reservations, passwords, overall rigamarole). After all, the hassle is mostly over once you’ve made it in the door and convinced someone to set a drink in front of you. The end result is a reality-distortion field that surrounds the whole speakeasy discourse, and is sub-optimal for the speakeasy seeking reader/drinker/consumer.
Which is why I am extra-thrilled to report that, with a bare minimum of rigamarole and only a soupçon of advance planning, I recently enjoyed several delightful beverages at two Southern California speakeasies.
In DME: San Diego, Zane wisely paid a visit to Noble Experiment, where Anthony Schmidt and his staff are treating classics with reverence without shying away from recent developments in cocktail culture. The name may be a suspicion-worthy callback to the aforementioned Dark Times, and the entrance may be hidden behind a fake wall of kegs at the back of a burger restaurant called Neighborhood, but the Neighborhood staff had no problem explaining the “secret” entrance to me, and the Noble Experiment hostess even found me a seat at a bar when I arrived without a reservation (although this may just have been good fortune – others are advised to call ahead. Feel free to subtract one star for rigamarole if you do).
Thanks to a serendipitous miscommunication with the bartender, I began my session at Noble Experiment with a delightful variation on Neyah White’s White Manhattan (Charbay Doubled & Twisted light whiskey, Cocchi Americano, orange bitters). Even better (and here is where you can add that star back for being accommodating), Mr. Schmidt was kind enough to indulge my off-menu cravings for a Benjamin Menéndez Special and a Réveillon. To paraphrase Judge Jewel: in the cocktail business, there are hits and misses … and Noble Experiment is a hit.
The entrance to Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles is at the back end of a ground-floor parking structure near LA Live. Once you’ve Yelped it, it’s not especially hard to find. There is a sign and everything. Caña is a members-only establishment, but it does not require reservations, and you can get yourself on file as a member by paying the one-time-only fee when you plop down at the bar, as I did on a Friday around Happy Hour. Caña General Manager Allan Katz is not kidding around. The bartenders I met were jovial, knowledgeable, and efficient. And the drinks menu – you might say it paints the club with amazing.
My old-school daiquiri (Don Q Cristal rum, fresh lime juice, and sugar), was terrific – and discounted for Happy Hour!. Since Caña passed that crucial rum-bar test with flying colors, I searched the cocktail menu for something more adventurous. “Adventurous” doesn’t even begin to describe the “Tennessee Isle” (Prichard’s Fine Rum, overripe mango-infused absinthe (!!), and coconut Peychaud’s bitters), a kind of mutant Sazerac clearly forged in the warped imagination of a madman. “Brilliant” and “awful” are the only possible outcomes for such a cocktail. Fortunately, this one fell squarely in the former category. I will say no more; you must taste the thing for yourself. Personally, I will return for the Caña take on a Zombie: the utterly unhinged “Twenty Eight Days Later,” with Gosling’s 115.5 proof rum, Don Q Añejo, reposado mezcal, Tuaca, Smith + Cross overproof rum, pineapple juice, fresh citrus juices, passion fruit, pomegranate, bitters, absinthe, something called “Don’s Mix,” and a scary-looking ellipsis that suggests there may be even more devilry at work.
Best of all, Caña has a selection of cigars and a lovely little patio, so you can feel like a real industry mogul, drinking Montecristo rum while smoking a Montecristo cigar. As the L.A. sun sets and the temperature starts to drop, if you still feel like your speakeasy experience is lacking in exclusivity, go ahead and throw on a Members Only jacket.