The First Timer’s Guide To Drinking In LA

Visiting LA for the first time is overwhelming, and eventually, you’ll need a drink. Head to one of these bars.

You just landed at LAX and the excitement is building. It’s your first time in LA, and our golden city of sun, smog, and CBD-infused beverages awaits. But as you attempt to navigate the horseshoe of death we call an airport, it dawns on you - you have no idea what to do here.

Whether you’re in town for work, finally visiting your college roommate who moved here to become a wellness DJ, or hosting your friend because you’re the wellness DJ, getting a grasp on where people actually go out and drink in this city is not easy. You need those quintessential, surefire bets, because four days goes fast in LA, and you don’t have time to mess around. Here are all the bars you need to be drinking at.

The Spots

Given that most of LA’s rooftop bars are soul-crushing tracts of concrete filled with selfie-taking binge-drinkers, Margot’s fantastic space in Culver City feels invaluable. Or at the very least, a bit more refined. Located on top of the Platform complex in Culver City, Margot is just as much of a restaurant as it is a bar. And while the food is solid, we love it most as a place to lounge, sip some incredibly strong gin and tonics, and watch the sunset. And after you’ve got a good buzz going, it’ll be easier to justify spending $40 on some Aesop soap downstairs.

Formosa Cafe is one of the most legendary bars in the city, but it’s no secret that this West Hollywood spot had fallen on hard times in recent years. Good news - after a multi-year renovation that saw the return of its historic design and character, Formosa is back and better than ever. The drinks are a mix of tiki-inspired cocktails and old classics like the Scotch-heavy Blood and Sand, and the bar bites are way better than they need to be (get the chile wontons). If you’re town looking for that Old Hollywood feel in a space that’s actually filled with people who live in Hollywood, head to Formosa.

If you come to LA with the expectation of dancing and drinking on rooftop patios all weekend, you’ll be disappointed. We don’t really do that, and many of those patios are over-priced, over-crowded, and generally terrible. Except for Mama Shelter. The colorful hotel rooftop in the heart of Hollywood is certainly a party, but that’s what you’re looking for. Grab a well-made cocktail from the bar, play some foosball, watch a movie on the big screen, and pray for the girl in stilettos trying to do a round-off on a daybed. There’s also a separate restaurant section with very solid Mediterranean food in case you get hungry.

Block Party is massive beer garden in Highland Park that’s a perfect place to burn an entire Saturday day-drinking. From the outside, the place actually seems fairly small, but the party starts on the back patio, where there are long communal tables and cruise ship-sized shuffleboard for showdowns with your enemies. They also have an excellent craft beer list, boozy popsicles, and you can order-in outside food, too.

Nomad Rooftop Bar is permanently closed

Nomad Rooftop Bar review image

Nomad Rooftop Bar

Perfect For:Day Drinking

Contrary to what your parents remember from their visit in 1995, Downtown LA is very much a thing now. While you can find any type of bar you want Downtown these days, your first move should be Nomad. Located in the DTLA hotel of the same name, you take an elevator all the way to the roof, and step out onto an open-air patio with some of the best views of Downtown, plus a pool, tremendous cocktails, and a cool, low-key crowd that’s always ready to mingle.

This might be your first time visiting LA, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a tourist. Located on top of a hill overlooking Hollywood, you won’t find Kensho on any hotel brochures or LA travel lists, and that’s exactly why you need to come here. This casual Japanese wine and sake bar has fantastic views (get there before the sun goes down to see the Hollywood sign), a great front patio for lounging around with your friends, and excellent food if you end up getting hungry.

Most people come to LA with the intention of experiencing some sort of classic, Rat Pack-era Hollywood atmosphere, and end up looking in all the wrong places. Go to Musso & Frank. The Hollywood Blvd. steakhouse is one of the oldest restaurants in the city and while it’s definitely filled with tourists, nothing beats cruising up to the bar and drinking a few of their lethal martinis. Most of the bartenders have been working there for decades and will probably tell you some insane story about a dead celebrity while they’re midway through a heavy pour. You don’t walk out of Musso & Frank, you stumble.

In cities like New York and Chicago, restaurants on top of skyscrapers are old news. In LA, they’re basically local landmarks. 71Above is a modern restaurant/bar on top of the US Bank tower that has only been open since 2016, but is easily one of the most impressive spaces in the city. With nearly 360-degree views of LA and a ceiling that looks like an optical illusion, drinking at 71Above is like being inside an interpretive art museum. While we totally endorse eating a full dinner here, you could also just come by for a strong drink before a night out Downtown.

There is no shortage of dive-y beach bars along the Santa Monica/Venice coast. Hinano is simply our favorite. Located on an aggressively touristy stretch of Washington Blvd. in Venice, Hinano is one of the few bars in the area that locals actually still go to. The beer is cheap, there’s sawdust on the floor, and there’s a burger on the menu that we’d travel long distances for. Once your buzz is good and strong, the beach is only a half block away for you to frolic in.

Hollywood is the land of over-designed bars that were probably decorated by people who also consult for Disneyland. On paper, Sassafras is one of them. This bayou-themed cocktail bar on Vine has moss hanging from the ceiling, a proscenium stage for live music, and a reconstructed Savannah townhouse that actually came from Savannah, Georgia. It’s over-the-top, but manages to get away with it because the cocktails are excellent, the crowd is always low-key, and you never have to wait long to get in - an important detail to consider when drinking in Hollywood.

photo credit: Jakob Layman

Red Lion Tavern review image

Red Lion Tavern

$$$$(323) 662-5337
Hours:TUESDAY11:00AM to 2:00AM

For the constant sunshine this town gets, our outdoor beer garden situation is fairly dire. But then there’s Red Lion Tavern, the old-school German restaurant in Silver Lake that all but makes up for our shortcomings. Hang inside for a bit, listen to the really old guy sing at the piano, then make your way out back to their beer garden, where one boot of beer becomes two boots, which becomes you convincing everyone you’re 100% German and a master of Bavarian folk dancing.

The Valley will never be a beacon of LA nightlife, but when it comes to Idle Hour, your slightly longer drive is worth it. For one, the space itself is amazing. You’re basically drinking inside a massive wooden barrel from the 1920s, and on the back patio there’s a two-story bulldog holding a pipe in its mouth staring back at you. There’s also a great craft beer list, good cocktails, and a crowd that’s always down to party.

A long, regrettable night of Ktown karoake is a rite of passage in LA. But finding the right place to “sing” isn’t easy. So just go to Brass Monkey. Hidden behind a bland office building on Wilshire, Brass Monkey is the kind of place you walk into sober and leave after trust-falling into the crowd because you nailed “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” This is not your private-room karaoke joint. This is a rowdy, sing-in-front-of-everybody throwdown, and one of the most fun nights out you can have in LA.

LA has lots of rowdy hotel pool bars. But for our money, you won’t find any better (or rowdier) than Tropicana at The Roosevelt in Hollywood. Beautiful people, strong drinks, and a setting straight out of a margarita-soaked weekend in Palm Springs. It can definitely get expensive here, but that’s the price you pay for love and luxury.

Angel City is the best brewery for a drunker-than-you-planned Saturday afternoon. The space is in a massive old warehouse in the Arts District, with tons of communal seating, brewery tours, cornhole, and an entire outside area with food trucks on the weekends. Is it the best craft beer you’ll have in LA? No. But your 3pm buzz definitely doesn’t care. Lines can get long here, but if you arrive before noon, you’ll get right in.

To be clear, Cha Cha Chicken is not a bar. It’s an order-at-the-counter jerk chicken joint a block from the Santa Monica beach that has one of the only BYOB policies on the Westside. Skip the aggressively lame bar situation that dominates most of Santa Monica, and head to Cha Cha instead. Pick up a 12-pack of your favorite beer, order some spicy wings from the counter, and spend the day on their fantastic patio. This is what drinking by the beach is supposed to look like.

The Abbey needs little introduction. It’s one of the most recognizable bars in Los Angeles and no matter where you fall on the Kinsey Scale, you can’t really leave this town without stopping in for at least one $15 vodka soda. The place turns into a total madhouse on the weekends, largely dominated by horny Real Housewives looking for gay validation and Inland Empire kids whose parents think they’re at a bonfire. But on weekdays, it’s just as busy and full of people who actually live in and around West Hollywood. Come here then instead.

When it comes to drinking cheap cocktails and listening to live music in LA, Hotel Cafe can’t be beat. The hidden space on Cahuenga in Hollywood (you have to enter in the alleyway) is neither a hotel or a cafe, but it is your best shot at seeing people perform who will be on the radio next year. Also, famous people love it here, so the chances of seeing Justin Timberlake hop on stage for a quick acoustic set in between acts is high. The vibe here is far cooler and low-key than the rock venues on The Strip, with an insider crowd that’s there solely to drink and discover new music.

Half the reason you’re even visiting in LA is because you want to drink alcohol by the beach and post an Instagram of you doing it for your bitter East Coast friends. Go to High Rooftop and accomplish both. Despite being one of the only rooftop patios on the Westside, High gets largely bypassed by tourists, giving the whole place a relatively calm and relaxing atmosphere to enjoy the sunset in. Drinks are a tad pricey, but you’re paying for way more than just alcohol here.

There are nights you go out for a few drinks and there are nights you go all out at Saddle Ranch. The kitchy, over-the-top whiskey apocalypse on the Strip is pure insanity and one of those places where, if you don’t leave with a great story, you know you didn’t do it right. You’re going to take some Fireball shots, ride a mechanical bull in front of strangers, and give your number to a girl from Tucson who has her ex’s name tattooed on her knuckles. Don’t come to Saddle Ranch to judge - because it certainly isn’t judging you.

In reality, this perpetually crowded Hollywood bar is far past its prime, but all your old college friends have heard about Davey Wayne’s secret refrigerator entrance, boozy Sno-cones, and ’70s house party aesthetic, and they want to experience it for themselves. And since you pride yourself on being the perfect host, you oblige and make their LA Instagram dreams come true.

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