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Cool bars in L.A. with decent parking? You're not dreaming

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

YOUR favorite bar got you down lately? The miasma of dismal parking opportunities along the Canter's-dominated stretch of Fairfax Avenue has had you circling the Dime more times than you'd care to count. The last time you cozied up to the bartender at Frank 'n Hank's in Koreatown, a dart whizzed by so close to your ear that you could have come away with an unintended piercing.

You've endured achingly hip crowds, doorman turndowns, $12 valet parking -- and, that can't-a-gal-just-enjoy-her-beer indignity -- being forced to covetously hover over occupied tables with full glasses in hand while hoping for a few seats for you and your pals. It's enough to drive you to drink -- if you could find a spot to have one.

And as cooler weather approaches (finally), all you want is an easy place to meet a few good friends who've pulled on chummy sweaters and are willing to drive halfway across town (maybe with a date or an out-of-town visitor in tow) to convene for some lively conversation and a glass of Pinot, a draft Belgian ale or a decent sidecar, plus a few well-turned-out appetizers. No Leonardo DiCaprio sightings necessary.

Well, there's great news. A handful of bars and wine bars have popped up in some geographically convenient "meet-me-in-the-middle" locations, where rendezvousing with friends and lovers is exactly the point.

And once you're there, it just gets better, thanks to happy-making amenities like glorious retro-SoCal parking (in lots!!), comfy seating, not-too-loud music, no big-screen TVs, no bad attitudes from behind the bar, ambience that manages to have an alluring patina or some chic design without crossing the border to divey or to too-much-Ultrasuede sleek -- plus good food and drink.

Filling a gap

"SOMETHING was missing here in L.A." in terms of bars, says George Abou-Daoud, who opened the Bowery on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood three years ago, followed by the Delancey down the street in April and most recently Mission Cantina (next door to Delancey) in August.

"There were sports bars, there were clubs, there were restaurants, there were fast food places," Abou-Daoud says. "There wasn't a place that was a bar where people can just hang out and socialize and the food is consistently good and it wasn't a restaurant -- the bar has to be an integral part of it. I don't mean you come to the restaurant and wait at the bar."

The clever happenstance is that Abou-Daoud -- a New York transplant -- homed in on a part of Hollywood where you can actually find a place to park and yet still be within convenient distance of say, the ArcLight for a movie.

Two fellows have made themselves comfortable in one of the high booths that line one side of Mission Cantina and have ordered margaritas. Not long thereafter, two women -- their faces cheerful and relaxed (that's the look of no-hassle parking) -- walk through the door, and as the bartender shouts "Hey!," the two men's eyes light up and the ladies slide into their booth. Coziness all around.

It's not just about the easy parking. These new watering holes are reflective of their neighborhoods; they acknowledge that locals in the South Bay, Echo Park, the uncool edge of Culver City and elsewhere will support an attractive, comfortable place to drop by for a quaff.

Recent bar makeovers have revamped such former dives as the Alibi Room on the border of Culver City or El Prado in Echo Park in ways thoughtful enough that you don't too painfully miss the former magnificence of -- in the Alibi's case -- a well-worn pool table circled by cigarette smokers who donned Allman Brothers concert T-shirts without irony. Now the Alibi has a dramatic, lacquered wood triangular bar, a gallery of wry, formalist photographs of swimming pools along one wall, a trim sofa-by-the-fireplace conversation nook, sake and wineglass storage suspended from the ceiling and a menu featuring prosciutto panini and artisanal cheese. And there's still a parking lot -- tiny, but real.

These new spots embrace ambience values seemingly from another era. Blaring flat-screen TVs aren't de rigueur, and neither are VIP rooms. "Clients are asking for designs that reflect 'meeting places,' comfortable areas where people can come and hang out," says Ana Henton, principal of Mass Architecture & Design, who designed Bacaro wine bar in West Adams and is working on another wine bar, Cork Bar downtown in the Evo building in South Park. There's no VIP seating or areas for bottle service, she says. "A space where people can just hang out tends to be more open."

Sometimes, she says, this translates into seating that's all the same height, such as bar-height tables. Those, says Henton, are at "eye level with the bartenders or people standing -- much easier for conversation. At Bacaro, everyone is at rustic wood tables, which makes for a 'sitting around the kitchen table' atmosphere."

Easy to get to them

WINE bars such as City Sip in Echo Park and Bacaro bring more than vino to under-served areas. They're a window onto a neighborhood, a way to start getting acquainted with an area not within a mile of your home or office. You're in Hollywood and your friend's in Pasadena? Take Sunset Boulevard to City Sip while your friend takes the 2 straight into Echo Park, and before you know it, you're both sitting down with a glass of slightly effervescent Lini Lambrusco and a soft-ripened Cana de Oveja sheep's milk cheese served with a little lavender honey.

The chalkboard sign in front of Sgt. Recruiter, a bar on the edge of Los Feliz, reads: "Invest in a glass of Pinot and salmon rillettes." Inside, the bartender is wiping down the copper bar, and a sign on the wall reads: "Thirsty? Just whistle. Morning-noon-night." Restaurateur Steven Arroyo's less-than-year-old, Cobras & Matadors-adjacent wine bar is more mixed-crowd-appropriate than Cheetah's "live girls" club down the street. And though it's less than a mile away from Good Luck Bar (which hasn't been the same since actor Mark Ruffalo made it big and isn't slinging martinis there anymore), the street parking is more ample.

In the lavender-golden glow, with a short stack of socca cakes (made with chickpeas and served with cilantro sauce) and a glass or two of Sancerre, and Ben Harper playing over the speakers, you and your friends are glad not to be at Crown Bar (or wherever DiCaprio is tonight).


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