Something shaken, something stirred: The martinis of Los Angeles

Musso & Frank martini
The classic martini at Musso & Frank is served in a smaller-than-normal glass, with the remainder of the cocktail poured into a sidecar and kept on ice.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
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Five hundred thirty-seven. That’s the number of martinis Musso & Frank made on a recent Saturday night, 456 of which were with olives; 113, requested dirty and 72, with a twist (the remaining 9 had pearl onions, which technically makes them gibsons). That’s a whole lot of gin to stir, but nothing new for the seminal Hollywood steakhouse, which celebrates its 100th birthday Sept. 27 with the unveiling of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Musso is an institution, but there are as many places in this town to drink a martini as there are ways to prepare one. And so, in honor of Musso’s centennial, we put our livers to the test on a little martini romp through the ages, sampling versions at restaurants across the spectrum, from old-school to newfangled. Some of the versions we sampled were classics whose formula has remained untouched for decades, while others take a decidedly more freewheeling approach. Which was the best? That’s for you to decide — now get shaking (or stirring, if that’s more your style).

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Best Icon: Musso and Frank
Musso & Frank martini
A classic martini at a Hollywood classic, Musso & Frank.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

What is there to know about Musso & Frank, the city’s ur-martini temple? The bar opened the day Prohibition ended, and the martini hasn’t changed since. A few quick stats: The house spirit for both gin and vodka is Gilby, the olives are cured in-house and vermouth is omitted unless requested. (Yes, that’s right, a martini here is straight liquor, which might explain your wobbly legs after just one.) Stirred is de rigueur, and the finished drink is served in a smaller-than-normal glass, with the remainder of the cocktail poured into a sidecar and kept on ice to ensure it keeps its chill. But none of that matters half as much as the real secret ingredient: the well-seasoned bartenders. “I’m not looking for someone who can spin four cocktails at once,” says Andrea Scuto, general manager and wine director. “Our bartenders are like psychologists — they know exactly what to say, when to say it, what to pour, and how to pour it.” A martini here is simply a rite of passage.

6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood 90028; (323) 467-7788

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Best People-Watching: Dan Tana’s
Dan Tana’s gin martini
A gin martini from Dan Tana’s, where all martinis are shaken unless otherwise specified.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The bar, situated between the two clubby dining rooms, is an ideal place to camp out and scope the scene at this West Hollywood relic filled with entertainment industry insiders and their assorted hangers-on. Martinis are a best-seller. Bartender Nick Papantoniou said customers ask for “70% with an olive, 25% with a twist, 5%, onion — and 100% asking for a headache.”

The well gin is Barton; the vodka, Svedka, but the most popular orders are for Hendrick’s and Tito’s, respectively, and all martinis come assertively shaken unless otherwise specified. The martinis here aren’t precision-engineered, but they’re very cold, very strong and served up very fast. On a recent night, a solo drinker explained his preference: Belvedere vodka and a vermouth wash. “Just rinse the glass and throw the vermouth out,” he solemnly intoned. “That’s how Frank Sinatra drank his martinis,” offered a waiter. “Oh yeah?” replied the guest. “That’s how my mother drank hers.”

9071 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood 90069; (310) 275-9444

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Best Stalwart: Taylor’s Steakhouse
Taylor’s Steakhouse martini
At Taylor’s Steakhouse in Koreatown, the martinis are served with either Seagram’s vodka or gin and very little vermouth.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The bar at this dimly lit K-town classic was buzzing at 7 p.m. on a recent Friday, a testament to both Taylor’s staying power (it opened in 1953) and its simple-yet-well-crafted martinis. A standard order involves Seagram’s vodka or gin and very little vermouth (“just a skosh,” according to bartender Joe Hulser), shaken by the seen-it-all staff. The vodka martinis with a twist are exceptionally crisp, but a request for a dirty martini comes with a bit of flair: a chilled glass filled halfway with olive juice is plunked down, topped before your eyes with icy-cold gin straight from the shaker. It’s executed with a minimum of fuss, but the little touches go a long way — this is one of the sharpest classic cocktails in town. “We get requests for lychee martinis and appletinis,” says Hulser, “but we don’t carry the ingredients for that kind of stuff.”

3361 W 8th St., Los Angeles 90005; (213) 382-8449

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Best Time Warp: Dear John’s
Dear John’s gin martini
A classic gin martini from Dear John’s in Culver City, served with olives from Adams Olive Ranch in Santa Barbara.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

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What’s old is new again at Josiah Citrin and Hans and Patti Rockenwagner’s lovingly revamped Rat Pack-era chophouse in Culver City. The menu features slightly upgraded riffs on the classics (inside-out chicken parm, a center-cut wedge salad), and the martini follows suit: two spritzes of dry vermouth from a spray bottle and three ounces of gin or vodka, stirred. “If someone seems really adventurous, I might try to talk them into orange bitters,” says head bartender Nick Gusikoff. It’s about subtle enhancements here: The ice is chainsawed in-house into cubes from a 300-pound clear block; the olives come from Adams Olive Ranch in Santa Barbara; and the drink is served in an elegant, no-spill Nick and Nora glass. Dear John’s doesn’t reinvent the wheel; it just makes it a little better.

11208 Culver Blvd., Culver City 90230; (310) 881-9288

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Best Use of Brine: Freedman’s
Freedman’s martini
The Full Sour martini at Freedman’s, served with Krogstad aquavit, Dolin dry vermouth and a shot of pickle juice.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Owner Jonah Freedman says his nouveau take on a Jewish-ish deli was designed with his grandmother’s Jewish country club in mind, and “my grandma drinks a lot of martinis.” But the restaurant’s Full Sour martini — a combination of Krogstad aquavit, Dolin dry vermouth and a shot of pickle juice leftover from the house-brined full sours — is no throwback. (Think a pickleback but classier.) The cocktail is shaken, given a dash of orange bitters for floral measure, and garnished with a pickle spear. The anise-forward Aquavit brings brightness, while the sharp pickle brine pushes this version toward decidedly funky territory. “It’s one of our more divisive drinks, but if you like a dirty martini, you’ll love this,” says Freedman. Pair it with the restaurant’s finger-friendly whitefish cigars.

2619 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles 90026; (213) 568-3754

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Best Novelty Martini: Mason
Espresso martini from Mason
The espresso martini from Mason is rich, creamy and dangerously drinkable.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

If the words “espresso martini” strike fear into your ’80s-partying heart, rest easy: The version at this dimly lit new Santa Monica Canyon hideaway tweaks the format beyond the standard-issue vodka and Kahlua. Mason’s “Benevolent” martini involves Don Julio Blanco tequila, sweet-bitter Italian Averna and ultra-smooth cold brew coffee, shaken with an egg white and Bitterman’s mole-flavored bitters (and garnished, as per, with three tiny coffee beans). The finished cocktail is rich, creamy and less sweet than its retro brethren — in other words, dangerously drinkable. Many of the tables at Mason are occupied by diners with standing reservations, but the bar is open, and the clubby, intimate room is the ideal space to get reacquainted with this ersatz martini throwback.

108 W. Channel Road, Santa Monica 90402; (424) 644-3034


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Jamie Feldmar