If you don’t drink, either for the night or for good, hanging out at bars can be depressing — or just very boring. At least that’s how it used to be, when we were condemned to a world of soda water and lime. These days, creative bartenders — the sort who make their own tinctures, forage for herbs and spend as much time at farmers markets as do chefs — are working their magic minus the booze as well as with it.
A very good mocktail requires as much balance as does a successful cocktail, perhaps even more, since there’s none of the alcohol to add torque and flavor — or to distract you. Here are a few fake cocktails that are worth a try.
Mock Green Goddess
Pull up a chair at the bar of AOC, Suzanne Goin and Caroline Styne’s gorgeous wine bar, and one of the first things you’ll notice is the row of fresh herbs near the taps. These are both pretty and pragmatic, as they help build many of barman Christiaan Rollich’s drinks. The Mock Green Goddess is made from green tea (the boozy version uses green tea-infused vodka), arugula simple syrup and juice from lemons, cucumbers — and jalapeños. Tangy and herbal without tasting like a salad in a Tom Collins glass, it’s a reminder of how a good drink can be a testament to a garden without feeling like you’re working outside. AOC, 8700 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (310) 859-9859, aocwinebar.com.
Mint ginger beer
The Varnish is one of those places that you might avoid if you’re not drinking — but you’d be missing out. It’s a beautiful throwback of a place. Imagine if Ken Burns’ set designers got lost in the back of an old sandwich shop. Eric Alperin and his crew can make a mean drink, with or without booze, and their mint ginger beer is one of the best fake cocktails around. It’s basically a sober Moscow mule, with a sprig of mint in place of the missing vodka. As with many simple things, it’s a triumph of ingredients: The ginger syrup is made in-house, the ice block is hand-cut and the cube of crystallized ginger is perfectly applied. The Varnish, 118 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 622-9999, thevarnishbar.com.
White grape sparkler
Grapes are oddly good in a drink. Barman Vincenzo Marianella, who consults at Love & Salt in Manhattan Beach, says that he got the idea for this drink when he was at the farmers market and tasted pears and white grapes together. Sage adds a great savory balance because it’s aromatic almost to the point of bitterness and thus cuts what could be too sweet of a drink. Add a bit of lemon and elderflower syrup, and the drink is complex and refreshing, and it pairs surprisingly well with cheese and meats, of which there are plenty (chicken liver toast, rabbit porchetta) at the restaurant. Love & Salt, 317 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-5252, loveandsaltla.com.
The old-fashioned cocktail called the Florodora, made with gin, lime and grenadine, was named for chorus girls — a fragrant yet buzzy drink that suited early 20th century music halls and the bars outside them. It’s therefore kind of ironic to order a sober version of the drink outside a deconsecrated cathedral, which is where barman Tobin Shea of Redbird mixes his. The combination of pomegranate, lime and orange flower water is gloriously floral, the acidic punch tempered with a bit of sugar and ginger ale. The drink strikes a balance between sweet and tart, leaning a bit more toward the latter, with the hint of orange bringing a subtle note. Redbird, 114 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 788-1191, redbird.la.
There are many reasons to drink at Commissary, Roy Choi’s greenhouse of a restaurant on a hotel rooftop in Koreatown. You’re on that rooftop deck, you’re surrounded by plants, you can see the hotel pool outside and you have Choi’s vegetable-intensive menu at your disposal once you get good and hungry. As for the mocktails, Matthew Biancaniello makes some terrific juice-based drinks, including something that Choi (who likes to name things) calls the Watermelon Unleaded. It’s kind of like a sandia agua fresca in a Collins glass, fancied up with lime juice, agave syrup and muddled basil leaves. Biancanello adds gin for drinkers, but without the booze, it’s a tall cool glass of marvelous flavors, perfect for lounging, either poolside or not. Commissary, 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 368-3030, eatatpot.com.