If you’re going to join the cult of the cocktail, then you ought to familiarize yourself with the rules. No more than four people in a group (this applies to celebrities too). No standing. No loud talking. No cellphones. Gentlemen, don’t approach the ladies -- and don’t forget to take off your hats. No name-dropping -- that’s tough in this town. And please (sometimes this one’s unwritten) do not commit the faux pas of ordering vodka, especially vodka and cranberry juice.
The age of the cocktail parlor -- the modern speak-easy -- is here, and patrons are requested, nay, required, to behave accordingly. Bartenders are going to the trouble of making their own bitters, sourcing obscure vermouths, hand-chipping ice, precision-stirring and wearing dapper vests, and in return, they’re asking that their customers show some manners, in appreciation of a great cocktail. To enforce etiquette, they’ve made rules. And these rules, more and more common in New York, are starting to show up in Los Angeles.
Why demand the best behavior? Because in the midst of a coast-to-coast cocktail renaissance, the focus -- as some see it -- is not on getting drunk and rowdy but on the drinks themselves. These bars are like civilized restaurants of drink.
You might be asked to remove your baseball hat. Especially if you’re about to sip an Elder Fashion cocktail (Plymouth gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and a dash of orange bitters with a grapefruit twist) or an Air Mail (Champagne, Santa Teresa 1776 rum, honey and fresh lime juice) at Death & Co., in New York’s East Village.
Or you might be told politely to keep it down at Sasha Petraske’s New York cocktail sanctum Milk & Honey, so that someone else can contemplate her Rome With a View (dry vermouth, Campari, fresh lime juice and a little sugar, shaken, and topped with club soda).
There are rules even in L.A. now, written or assumed. Cedd Moses’ new members-only bar, the Doheny, is set to open in December, complete with a list of house rules.
“The house rules are inspired by the house rules in London and New York bars and private clubs, but modified for Angelenos,” said Moses, owner of downtown watering holes such as Seven Grand and Golden Gopher. “It will be posted at our entrance and let people know that it is a serious cocktail spot and not a sports bar.”
Most sports bars don’t have a $2,175 initiation fee either. Vincenzo Marianella of Providence is creating the cocktail menu (and Neal Fraser of Grace the small-plates menu).
‘I like policies’
Some of those rules are: “Absolutely no cellphone/BlackBerry use inside. Please use our porte cochere. . . . No brown-nosing. . . . Red Bull? Don’t even think of ordering it here. . . . No screaming -- unless Lakers win the finals.”
“I like policies,” said Sang Yoon, who is opening a second Father’s Office, in Culver City, planned for December. “It gives us choices; ‘that place is for me, that place isn’t.’ ” And for bar owners, it’s saying, ‘Here’s who we are, and here’s who we want our customers to be.’ You can’t say, ‘No schmucks.’ ”
At SBE Entertainment Group’s new Philippe Starck-designed S-Bar in Hollywood, there aren’t any rules per se, but the “schmucks” might be discouraged not only by the doorman and velvet ropes but also by the price of a cocktail -- $20 for an Imperial Prince of Wales (Cognac, Benedictine, angostura bitters and brut Champagne) or $19 for a horseradish and pomegranate margarita.
“You can’t do it with pricing,” Yoon said. “You get rich schmucks.”
Yoon has rules, but they’re not written anywhere. “The way I set rules is by not offering certain choices,” he said. “You rid yourself of pitchers of beer, or light beer. No beer from a bottle.”
And no vodka. You won’t find any on his cocktail menu at the new Father’s Office, where you’ll drink what Yoon wants you to drink. You’ll have a choice, but only among four classic cocktails (Manhattan, Sidecar, classic gin martini, Negroni) plus a seasonal cocktail (say, white grapefruit juice with gin, rimmed with fleur de sel) -- and a couple of secret ones. “I don’t like vodka,” Yoon said. “It has little to no character, and most people abuse it by covering up what little character there is.”
“But we’re a bar; there’s no kids,” he said. “I’m not going to tell them not to pass notes, or no chewing gum.”
If he won’t, others will. “We’ve been known to ask people to spit out their chewing gum,” said Death & Co. co-founder David Kaplan. Chewing gum “is like a slap in the face after all the hard work” on the part of the bartender. The written rules are no baseball hats, no cellphones and no flash photography. And just as at Milk & Honey and PDT, there’s no standing. “I don’t know why more bars don’t do this,” Kaplan said. “We don’t overcrowd the place, it really enhances the experience for people, and the bottom line doesn’t suffer.”
“The key thing to note in the ‘rules’ going round is that they typically stem from one of two thoughts,” Kaplan said. “Rules for rules’ sake because speak-easies had them and speak-easies are in vogue or simple guidelines of etiquette to ensure that everyone has a great experience and leaves their worries and woes behind them -- or at least outside.”
‘No hooting, hollering’
The rules at cocktail lounge Angel’s Share in New York’s East Village used to be something of a novelty. But the sign next to the door was no joke: “Attention! No more than 4 people. No standing. No screaming no shouting. Thank you for your cooperation. Enjoy your quality time.” The list of rules was short, but strictly enforced by Japanese bartenders with accurate, pomade-enhanced haircuts who rarely cracked a smile and had a way with a shaker.
Then Petraske opened renowned reservations-only Milk & Honey, where the house rules posted in the restroom are twice as long and include: “No name-dropping. No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behaviour. Gentlemen will remove their hats. Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies.” The rules are the same at the New York and London locations, and they’re similar at Petraske’s Little Branch in the West Village.
Others followed suit, with a sort of formula: Sophisticated cocktails plus intimate setting plus semi-"secret” location plus a sense of decorum bolstered by house rules equal “an experience that brings people into a separate world,” as described by Kaplan of Death & Co., which opened in January. Nearby PDT (as in Please Don’t Tell) opened in the spring. The current PDT cocktail menu is four pages long. On it, you’ll find smart cocktails such as the Vieux Mot (Plymouth gin, St-Germain, lemon juice and a little simple syrup) or a classic Martinez (Beefeater gin, sweet vermouth, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and orange bitters). The “Tavern Etiquette” includes: “Keep the volume of your conversations to a reasonable level. Smoking and cell phones are prohibited in the bar; kindly use the back patio to use the phone or smoke. No game playing (yes, that means you can’t play Scrabble while you’re drinking or shoot craps on the patio). Do not interrupt other guests; if you came here to hit on strangers, you’re in the wrong place.”
Those who have been steeped in the ways of Milk & Honey are spreading the cult-of-the-cocktail attitude.
“Everything we do is a throwback to the early 20th century,” said bartender Sam Ross of Milk & Honey and Little Branch in New York, who was in L.A. recently to set up the bar program at new restaurant Comme Ca in West Hollywood (priority No. 1 was to use as little vodka as possible). “The bartenders are inspired to bar-tend at a different level,” Ross said. “It’s not pulling beers and getting tips. We’re seen as a draw for the place. We expect you to share the same opinion about drinking as we do. We don’t drink to get drunk, we drink to enjoy alcohol.”
The drinks at Comme Ca are pretty rarefied -- there are four house cocktails, some with hunks of crystal-clear, hand-cracked ice, others sprayed with Scotch vapor -- along with a “dealer’s choice” (you choose the spirit, they come up with a cocktail). Comme Ca may be a restaurant, but it’s so noisy and packed, it feels like a raucous bar. It’s a little hard to give your Penicillin your full attention. (Maybe they could use some rules?)
Cocktail consultant Ryan Magarian of Liquid Relations created the cocktail menu at S-Bar; he happens to employ two Milk & Honey veterans.
“I aspire to that level of precision and attention to detail,” Magarian said. “You’re engaged by the server. Your drink is stingingly cold and perfectly balanced. You’re pondering over this drink. . . .”
Does it feel like a shrine to the perfect cocktail? Maybe not. “On a Friday night in Hollywood,” he said, “it’s going to be what it is. People are there to drink.”
The rules have some entertainment value, and most are common sense, said PDT bar manager John Deragon. “Unfortunately, sometimes you have to relay what common sense is to some people.”
“It’s great to be sitting at a table in a bar and not have somebody’s butt in your face,” said Rosalie Knox, who recently was sipping on a frothy Pisco sour served in a coupe at PDT.
“But I take issue with all the oxford shirts in here,” said one of her companions, Patterson Beckwith, who was wearing an oxford shirt but, notably, not khaki pants.
And don’t expect special treatment even if you’re a celebrity. Some rules aren’t meant to be broken, and Bill Murray recently found out the hard way. On a Friday night last month at Angel’s Share, a sweater-vested, slightly rumpled Murray entered the bar with five others. He looked at the framed list of rules (“No more than 4 people”) and was skeptical about getting a seat. But a woman from his party asked a bartender for a table anyway; she was turned down. Murray himself approached the bartender. No luck.
“We don’t make special exceptions for anyone,” said Shingo Gokan, bartender/venenciador (as his card says). “Our rule is no more than four people.”
But people seem to love the rules, at least as souvenirs, so much so that the framed “Tavern Etiquette” in the restroom at PDT recently was pulled off the wall. At Milk & Honey and Little Branch, copies of the rules are available upon request, to discourage the same thing from happening. Maybe that should be a new rule -- no removing the rules.