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L.A.'s Speakeasies

No Vacancy, Jessica Sample

Photos by Jessica Sample

No Vacancy

You don’t need to be a bootlegger or well-connected celebrity to get into LA’s newest wave of speakeasies. But true to their nature, they’re harder to find and reward you with an insider experience that’s a playful mix of theatrics and splashy ingredients, from creative entrances and burlesque to craft cocktails that will leave you tingling from the first heady sip.

The LA outpost of a concept originally born in New York, Culver City’s Blind Barber stays true to form with a barbershop front, or “blind,” that hints at things to come with its vintage barber chairs, hip soundtrack and cuts and shaves that come with a side of comp beer and whiskey. After 9 p.m., the barbershop closes but the real party is just heating up in the back room: It’s a time-warp space that feels vaguely 1920s, with distressed walls and vintage fixtures where crafty cocktails with names such as the Smoke + Dagger (Jack Daniel’s, jalapeño-infused Cointreau, lemon juice, cucumber and ginger) are poured and DJs spin new soul and hip-hop. It all adds up to a festive experience that is definitely a cut above.

       
Blind Barber.

       

Located on a side street off of Hollywood Boulevard, No Vacancy is the newest offering from nightlife impresarios the Houston brothers. Beyond the nondescript doorway you’ll discover a speakeasy entrance that would make Norma Desmond blush, including mystery doors and a 1930s-era bedroom parlor complete with lingerie model. She points you to a bed that magically parts to reveal the entrance—and then it’s your turn to go down the rabbit hole. What you’ll find downstairs in this century-old Victorian manse is a Mad Hatter collection of rooms, patios and VIP spaces, as well as live bands and acrobatic burlesque acts.

East Hollywood is home to another speakeasy-style venue with a retro Cuban flourish. At La Descarga, a young woman greets you in the parlor, checks your reservation, then opens what looks like a large armoire, revealing a staircase that winds down to a world of rum, rumba and hand-rolled cigars. Notable here is an impressive rum menu with rarities such as El Dorado, a popular cigar lounge and themed nights such as Tiki Tuesdays, when tropical prints are highly encouraged.

Historically, Downtown LA was rife with speakeasies, and Cole’s was there to witness it all. At the back of the wood-paneled 1908 restaurant, you pass through a small door and enter a retro throwback that many locals consider LA’s church of cocktail. Winner of Best American Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2012, The Varnish is a potent mix of exposed brick walls, live piano music and meticulously crafted vintage cocktails swimming in ingredients such as premium mezcal, absinthe and hand-cracked ice. The hot tip here is to order the Bartender’s Choice—the bar staff always knock it out of the park.

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