In a place as sprawling and car-dependent as Los Angeles, it’s not always worth taking a Lyft all the way across the city at 10:30 just to drink alcohol at some bar where the entrance is a Slip N’ Slide. This year, we visited tons of bars in every neighborhood and drank plenty of mediocre $17 cocktails in the process. The places that made this list, however, are special. From a musical theater piano bar in Hollywood to a brewery inside Union Station, these are the 11 best LA bars that opened in 2018.
Walking into Tramp Stamp Granny’s in Hollywood is like walking into the most insane high school theater cast party of all time. Here you’ll find bartenders belting Celine Dion and pouring shots, strangers having Missy Elliot rap-offs, and every single person singing Seasons of Love in unison. This rowdy piano bar is the kind of place you peak your head into because you hear noise from the sidewalk, and wake up the next morning with a text from an unknown number asking if you’re still on for the Dear Evan Hansen matinee.
The first time we went to Bar Calo, we thought we had walked into a satirical urban lifestyle exhibit. There were exhausted-looking 23 year-olds draped across the couch, chain-smoking musicians on the front patio drinking tequila cocktails, and a healthy handful of people who have crafted overalls out of repurposed Trader Joe’s bags. This modern Mexican bar in Echo Park is complete insanity, and also one of the most exciting places to drink in LA. People watching aside, the cocktails are excellent and if you don’t order at least a few things off the bar food menu, you’re doing it wrong.
Tons of great bars have opened in Highland Park over the last year, but the one you need to head to first is Checker Hall. It’s on the second floor of an old masonic lodge, so the space itself is downright cavernous. But because it’s so big, you can pretty much do whatever you want here. We’ve taken dates for drinks after dinner, and we’ve rolled in with big groups for several rounds of spicy tequila cocktails before seeing a concert at the adjoining live music venue. There’s also a great patio where you can watch everybody stumble down Figueroa after midnight.
A few Tokyo-inspired record bars have opened in LA this year, and In Sheep’s Clothing is our favorite. For those unfamiliar with the concept, think well-made whiskey drinks, a clean-line design reminiscent of a thermal spa, and great music that’s not coming from some guy on the computer in a corner. In Sheep’s Clothing gets busy, but with a low-key crowd and plenty of seating (including an alarmingly comfortable black leather couch), this Arts District bar is much more of a hangout spot than a place to get wild on a Saturday night.
We always wished that the space were bigger at The Hermosillo in Highland Park because we like hanging out there and drinking Highland Park Brewery beer. The Hermosillo is still tiny, but the brewery has opened a new spot inside a converted warehouse in Chinatown that’s three times the size of the original, with plenty of tables for big groups, a dog-friendly patio that faces the LA State Historic Park, and a dedicated tasting room. The bar snacks menu is small, but way more delicious than it needs to be (get the cheese curds). And yes, the beer is still fantastic. This is where you need to be drinking before a Dodger Game.
After feigning excitement at another friend’s mediocre Arts District brewery birthday party, walk over to Little Tokyo and into our favorite new dive bar, The Mermaid. Unlike most dive bars, the cocktails are the reason to come to this dimly-lit spot. The gin-based Drink Your Vegetables is briny and fresh, and there’s also a snow-cone machine onsite. The crowd is cool and laidback, and if you head to the bathrooms you’ll spot a porthole with mermaids passing by. It’s just a video on loop, but it never gets old.
Walt’s Bar calls itself an arcade bar, but here’s the good news for anyone who’s sick of those - it’s not really an arcade bar. It’s a neighborhood dive bar that happens to have a row of pinball machines in case you get drunk and want to play. The crowd is young and laidback, and there’s a popcorn machine as well as a late-night snacks menu that reads like the concessions at a middle school basketball game. While the general theme is retro 1950s, it’s not in a sad Mel’s Diner kind of way.
Downtown rooftop bars are opening with consistent frequency these days, and that means we can finally discern the great ones from the good ones. Nomad is a great one. This sprawling space has everything you want in a rooftop - good views, a large pool you’ll dip your toe into at some point, and a laidback crowd that’s not afraid to throw back some cocktails on a Saturday afternoon. The biggest difference at Nomad, however, is that the cocktails are some of the best you’ll find Downtown. The menu includes the “classics” from the downstairs bar, plus some rooftop-only cocktails like the frozen pina colada. If you get hungry, go for the fava bean hummus.
We thought we were going to hate Apotheke. It’s the second location of a popular NYC speakeasy/jazz club where long lines and $17 cocktails are part of the experience. Update: We were wrong. Yes, the drinks are expensive and the 19th-century apothecary aesthetic is a bit over-the-top, but you’ll never have to wait in line and those pricey cocktails are tremendous. The interior is fairly small, so we usually head to the back patio where there’s another full bar and cool views of the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood.
Downtown LA has a lot of breweries that have been repurposed from other things, like warehouses, art studios, and apartment buildings. And none are quite as impressive as train terminal-turned-megabar Imperial Western Beer Company. It’s a huge, beautiful space at Union Station where you half-expect to find a group of redheads pushing carts through a barrier to Platform 9 ¾. What you’ll actually find here is couples playing pool or shuffleboard and people celebrating birthdays relatively responsibly. The beer brewed in-house is better than what we’ve had at most other DTLA breweries, and the raw bar oysters and aguachile changed our minds about our rule to never eat raw seafood from a brewery.