A caveat: As a writer, I understand how these things go. Lists are the ultimate traffic bait. No one agrees with them, so everyone post comments on the story with their approval/disapproval of the contents therein. The story gets passed around and the debate widens, with Facebook pages and Twitter feeds exploding with intelligent commentary like “OMG ARE YOU KIDDING ME THAT IS NOT THE BEST!” “OMG ARE YOU ON CRACK THAT IS THE WORST!” The disgruntled end up campaigning for their favorite forgotten places, and the debate, in essence, helps write a longer and more inclusive list. It’s a win-win for everyone.
So that’s why when Paul Bradley wrote a story entitled “The Best 10 Bars in Silver Lake” for the LA Weekly, as a full-time resident and part-time drinker in the neighborhood, I felt I had to respond with my own picks.
First, some criteria: Bradley’s piece appeared in the Weekly’s music column, so it’s naturally skewed towards clubs. And some of them are fun, but not really what I think of when I hear the word “bar.” Bars are places you can go at 7:00 p.m. or 1:00 a.m. or sometimes 9:00 a.m. and order an alcoholic drink. They have physical bars where transactions and conversations occur with an actual bartender. They might be places that serve food, but you would not feel weird if you were only there for drinking. They are not places where you need tickets to enter. Ever.
Then there’s the other issue: Where, exactly, is Silver Lake? I think the Mapping L.A. project at the Los Angeles Times has decided on some pretty accurate boundaries for my neighborhood. We’ll go with those.
Also? I don’t like the 10-to-1 countdown to THE BEST bar. Bars cannot be judged against other bars as they have different things to offer. These are 10 of my favorite neighborhood bars, in no particular order.
Hyperion Tavern: If the barber pole is spinning outside, then this bar—easily one of the best in the city—is open for business. Glittering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined with law encyclopedias and the scariest bathrooms this side of Tijuana. The nights start quiet but inevitably a band or a DJ or a comedy show or an experimental filmmaker will take the stage and you’ll find yourself captivated by the fabulous brand of weirdness that only LA can provide. This is the only bar I’ve ever been to in my running attire (long story) and I didn’t look a bit out of place. Oh yeah, they only serve beer. But when it comes to 40s of Carta Blanca, you only need one.
Malo: Let me tell you about my fantasy bar. It’s walking distance from my house. It has flocked wallpaper. It serves cocktails that mix mezcal and bourbon TOGETHER. It is a bar where you can order tacos filled with beef, pickles and cheddar cheese, three flavors so perfectly suited for each other you’d swear they were cribbed from the menu of the McDonald’s next door. For all these reasons and more, Malo’s bar is one of the best places in Silver Lake to drink. Here’s another one: It’s open all day.
Black Cat: The Black Cat Tavern is where many say the gay rights movement began in 1966—two full years before Stonewall—after a raid and subsequent protests which helped to launch The Advocate. It was named a historic-cultural monument in 2008 and soon after was bought by the Village Idiot folks (who are also delivering a version of their Melrose pub next door). Today, the space pays homage to the Black Cat’s history through framed photos and the original sign outside, but the new place is swanky. Get dressed up and go, so you can meet the bartenders. They’re witty, knowledgable and ready to collaborate. I had a twist on a Manhattan called the Red Hook that makes it very difficult for me to drink a traditional one.
4100 Bar: I can’t recall many specifics about this place. Details come to me in flashes: tapestries covering the wall like I used to have in my dorm room, a sassy female bartender who gave us free shots on Halloween, downing a dozen vodka sodas, eating some kind of grilled meat outside. But the one thing I do remember: It’s dark. Not just romantic dark. So dark you may end up making out with the wrong person dark. Whatever your itinerary was for the evening when you arrived, you will end up with a very different plan when you depart. Another reason to drink here now: Due to a proposal for condos to be built on this very spot, it may not be around for much longer.
Edendale: I have experienced some of the best nights of my Silver Lake life in this former firehouse on Rowena, and I’m sure plenty of my neighbors feel the same way. For our group of friends, this is “our place” and that’s because Edendale lends itself perfectly to so many drinking situations. You can have a beer at the bar by yourself during happy hour. You can have a boozy three-hour brunch in the sun. You can order mac & cheese at 1:00 a.m. after accidentally drinking your way through dinner. The space is huge with multiple rooms and two patios (remember: firehouse) so the sheer numbers alone mandate that you’ll run into someone else you know, end up merging tables and drinking Dark & Stormys well into the night.
Thirsty Crow: It’s not that I’m sentimental for Stinkers, the truck stop themed-establishment that used to occupy this space, with its Burt Reynolds poster and vintage beer can collection and vapor-misting skunk. It’s just that I’m so over the “Prohibition Era” decor which has devoured LA’s bars like a flesh-eating, tweed vest-wearing virus. But then I have a mint julep, served in that cute little silver cup with one of the roughly one billion bourbons they’ve managed to cram behind a quite gorgeous marble-topped bar. By the time I’ve moved on to an Old Fashioned, the pressed-tin ceiling has begun to blur pleasantly and I realize that I do like this bar, very much.
Cha Cha Lounge: It’s like a market research firm crunched the data: What do people want at their drinking establishment? Tiki decor, check. Photobooth, check. Foosball, check. A taco truck outside, check. But somehow it doesn’t feel contrived at all. Some come for the margaritas but my favorite drink here is a Bloody Mary (or Bloody Maria) made with house-pickled green beans. On weekends, the line gets long, the space grows crowded, and the clientele both inside and outside the bar becomes a little rowdy. So be it. Come early (5:00 p.m.) so you can get the best seat at the palapa-topped bar.
Cafe Stella: No, not the walled garden of Bar Stella (although if you go there, be assured that your eyes will be protected from the garish reality of the street not only by said nine-foot wall, but also by a black curtain hung strategically over the sidewalk). Inside the actual restaurant part of Cafe Stella is a golden-lit sliver of a bar populated by eccentric regulars. It’s the only place in the neighborhood that actually succeeds in feeling like you’ve traveled somewhere very far away in both time and place. It’s also the only place where you can order a secret, off-the-menu burger, which is very good.
Akbar: A gay bar, a dive bar, a neighborhood bar, a dance-so-hard-you’ll-want-to-change-your-clothes bar, and one of Silver Lake’s most fun bars, period. They have epic DJ nights but it’s also a very chill place to drink very cheap, very strong drinks on a Sunday night. One year during Sunset Junction—when there still was such a thing—I danced to hip hop here for five hours and by the time I went home I had made about 35 new best friends. The best part: When I came back a few weeks later, a few of them were there again, too.
L&E Oyster Bar: Even if you’re not feeling like oysters, even if you don’t really want the smoked mussels with chorizo toast, even if you are seriously not going to partake in the ridiculously good clam chowder, this is still one of the best places in the city to order a glass of truly excellent rosé on a warm summer evening (and if you ask nicely, they’ll slide a packet of oyster crackers over the bar). Now there’s an expanded space on the second floor with a separate bar menu and more room to drink. Also, like their sister bar, Bar Covell: Easily the nicest and most attentive bartenders in town.
Now, since my rules for determining this list are very rigid, as a bonus, here are a few more recommendations…
A non-bar which manages to be one of the best places in Silver Lake for drinking: Silverlake Wine’s in-store tasting events.
And one place in Silver Lake that’s thisclose to becoming a great bar, and I think it will happen this year: Cliff’s Edge. For a glimpse of what that will look like, come here on Wednesday nights, when Matt Biancaniello does guest appearances behind the bar.
Wow, this is beginning to sound like the world’s best walking tour…