A gorgeous new drinking destination for Dry January (and beyond)

The exterior of a building in Chinatown's Center Plaza.
The exterior of Stay, a cocktail lounge serving entirely nonalcoholic drinks in Chinatown.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

It was a flash of stagecraft practically codified in modern cocktail bars.

A dapper man behind the counter at Stay strained a reddish-bronze cocktail into a textured rocks glass with one large ice cube and a thin orange slice. Then he fitted a wooden “chimney” top over the glass, fired up a torch lighter equipped with a cartridge of wood chips and took aim with the blaze.

He walked the drink over to the couch where a friend and I were sitting. Off came the top and up swirled the smoke. Pics all around. The campfire scent lingered in the glass, mixing with notes of vanilla, caramel, ginger and citrus. It was the top suggestion from our server, and we’d ordered several others beforehand, but he was right about this one.


A new chapter in the NA revolution

The creation, called the Ox, is a mix of Kentucky 74 Bourbon Alternative, Roots Divino Aperitif Rosso (a variation on vermouth), ginger syrup and bitters. Its flavors clearly evoke a Manhattan, but it contains no alcohol. Nor do any of the drinks at Stay, a zero-proof cocktail lounge that has just opened in a storied Chinatown building.

I rarely rush to restaurants or bars the week their doors officially unlock to greet customers, but Stay’s appearance is particularly time-sensitive. We are in the thick of Dry January, and this year I’ve never seen more media coverage of the topic. The Food team went deep on the subject of nonalcoholic drinking last week, delving into some of our favorite places for NA cocktails, a taste test of 19 NA beers, drink recipes and a profile of actor Danny Trejo and his 55 years of sobriety.

My main contribution was a piece on the brilliance of Austin Hennelly and Han Suk Cho, the bar director and lead bartender, respectively, at Kato, where their combined talents equate to the most compelling NA cocktails I’ve tasted by far.

But I was eager for Stay.

Two people sit at the bar at Stay Zero Proof Cocktail Lounge
The beautifully detailed bar at Stay Zero Proof Cocktail Lounge in Chinatown’s Central Plaza.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

While some frequent and forward-thinking pop-ups like Bar Nuda are appearing across the city, Stay looks to be the first free-standing zero-proof bar in Los Angeles. Art director Stacey Litoff-Mann and actor Summer Joy Phoenix (the youngest sibling of River and Joaquin) have partnered on the project. They each come from design backgrounds, and the space they’ve created is so ravishingly beautiful that I wandered around, peering for a good while at the overwhelming details, before even thinking about ordering a drink.

The structure, in Chinatown’s Central Plaza, was built in 1939 as part of the wave of construction for “New Chinatown,” a relocation of sorts after the city’s original Chinatown was shamefully demolished, displacing thousands, for the purpose of building Union Station. Most recently the building housed Realm, a gift shop, but in the 1970s and ’80s, it was a banquet hall restaurant that at night hosted legendary punk club Hong Kong Cafe. Black Flag was among the first bands to perform there. It sat opposite a restaurant and bar, Madame Wong’s, that first thought to bring in acts once a week. Their eventual rivalry became the stuff of legends and documentaries.

Litoff-Mann and Phoenix’s just-finished makeover is part restoration, preserving the Chinese-inspired architectural motifs, and part reimagining. It looks like a color-saturated Midcentury Modern set piece: low-slung couches, ceiling tiles etched with figures that evoke the Chinese zodiac, meticulously painted crown molding, octagonal windows framed in stained glass. Only the bar hews contemporary, with lightbox panels overlaid in leafy floral print glowing from underneath the counter. A row of see-through plastic bar stools keeps the view clear, aesthetically.


Now, about the cocktails.

Litoff-Mann and Phoenix hired Derek Brown to develop the drinks menu. Brown was the nationally renowned owner of the Passenger and its bar-within-a-bar, Columbia Room, in Washington, D.C. They originally opened in 2010; I went in 2012 and had among the best pairings of cocktails and food I can recall. Brown has since begun focusing on low- and no-alcohol beverages; in 2022 he wrote a book to the point called “Mindful Mixology.”

The alcohol-free Ox cocktail, finished with an infusion of smoke.
The alcohol-free Ox cocktail, finished with an infusion of smoke, at Stay in Chinatown.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

One of my favorite parts of interviewing Cho and Hennelly was talking with them at length about the elements that go into next-level, holistically considered NA cocktails, particularly within the context of mimicking alcoholic counterparts. Spirits and wine often have glycerin, which contributes body, a sense of weight, to the texture as you sip. With booze there’s also the sensation of a pleasant, gripping sort of harshness. In apathetic hands, NA cocktails tend to taste haphazard: a swirl of juices, some spiced syrup, maybe a squirt of soda. Impressive NA drinks require carefully considered structure.

What I particularly enjoyed about the smoky Ox was the weight Brown and his team achieved — the longed-for, tactile aura of slickness, the element that signals “leisure beverage” to the brain. And it wasn’t too sweet.

I felt similarly about the Rooster, a mix of tart cherry tonic, apple cider vinegar, ginger syrup and blood orange juice. It took a couple stirs for the flavors to balance in the glass, and the texture was juicier than the Ox, but I appreciated the tartness and the ginger’s subtle heat.

When the server first took our order, he asked me what I usually drink, and I made the mistake of saying, “A dry gin martini.” A martini is a martini is a martini. Perhaps in five years there will be some miracle substitute for gin, but we’re not there yet. Of Stay’s two martini-style drinks, I preferred the Snake, which was maybe too salty (I mentioned to the server that I wanted it dirty, to be fair) but it effectively drowned out the weird sweetness of the gin alternative.


I could go on; I’m having an obsessive moment with this subject. Bottom line: Litoff-Mann, Phoenix and Brown have put themselves on the front lines of great NA drinking, locally and nationally. Being innovators will mean fine-tuning to the tastes of customers, and staying continually abreast of the latest NA products being introduced to the market, and a harder-to-quantify commitment to new frontiers. Most of Stay’s dozen drinks derive inspiration from classic cocktails, and I picture a world in which Brown colors so far outside the lines that, if the flavors and textures compel, his creations will need no preexisting references.

Stay currently operates in the evenings from Thursday through Sunday. The menu also includes NA wines (I was too curious about the cocktails to veer away) and plant-based snacks from Erica Daking of Kitchen Mouse: olives, nuts glazed with maple syrup and sesame, some fun lotus chips with a very good vegan makrut-lime aioli. They are easy to crunch while staring at the jaw-dropping room and considering your next drink.

Stay Zero Proof Cocktail Lounge: 425 Gin Ling Way, Los Angeles, (323) 677-0221,

Just over 1 in 10 restaurants in the U.S. serve Mexican food

A recent analysis published this week by the Pew Research Center reports that 1 in 10 restaurants in the United States serve Mexican food. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank collaborated with Yelp and third-party vendor SafeGraph on the study, which found that 11% of restaurants across the U.S. have menus focused on Mexican food.

California and Texas alone account for nearly 40% of all Mexican restaurants in the U.S. The report tallied nearly 5,500 Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles County, well over twice as many as in the U.S. county with the second-highest number: Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, has 2,362 Mexican restaurants, according to the study.

The good nacho cheese pull at El Coyote, one of L.A.'s classic Mexican restaurants.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

As to the specific regionality or style of Mexican food served in these places? “We didn’t want to be the arbiters of what is and what isn’t authentic,” Aaron Smith, director of data labs research at Pew, told Fidel Martinez at De Los. “For our purposes, we wanted to encompass a broad scope of everything from restaurants with fairly Americanized menus with multiple locations to mom-and-pop operations that might not even have a listing on Yelp.”

Read more on De Los.

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