Once upon a time in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the neighborhood’s go-to watering holes were better known for their chicken wings and divey nautical themes than any sort of upscale craft vibe.
But lately, the imbibing canvas of Koreatown is rapidly evolving to attract vibrantly different crowds, including gourmands, cocktail aficionados, and club hoppers. Inherent in the success of the area’s new bar scene is that it has become a destination for revelers with a wide range of drinking styles. Is the Koreatown of yore a thing of the past? Not at all. The old-school hang outs continue to be vital.
Today, Toe Bang stills serve Hite with their potato pancakes, Palmtree offers bottles of soju with their private karaoke rooms, H.M.S. Bounty has cheap, generous whisky pours with a jolly story-telling bar companion, and R Bar pours rounds of novel shots in its cavernous, pirate ship space. And recently, Beer Belly became Koreatown’s beacon of the gastropub movement, serving up pints of craft beer for a great price and earning a following for duck fat fries.
Old meets new — here’s the rundown of the overachieving young guns in town.
Joshua Yerkey helms the bar at EMC Seafood, a restaurant coming up on their second anniversary. He is met with high-volume demands thanks to the spot’s near-constant happy hour which draws deal-seeking crowds. Oysters are $1 each and well drinks; house wine runs $5 a glass during daily happy hour from 4 -7 PM and 10 PM til close. There’s often a line, but Josh and EMC are accommodating.
“Oysters are the gateway drug … Around mostly 5:30 – 7 PM, we get hit hard,” says Yerkey.
“We tend to get super slammed throughout the entire weekend. Sometimes, we’ll make drinks for people sitting in the waiting area so they have something in their hand.”
Whether at EMC for the oysters or other seafood, you’ll find a more personalized drink experience happening at the bar where Josh will make you a cocktail — a barrel-aged Old Fashioned that’s incredibly smooth, for instance — or recommend something like a 2013 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc to pair with your oysters.
Customers range from locals of Koreatown proper to visitors from Long Beach and Orange County looking for a good deal on seafood. Besides oysters, top food sellers include lobster, branzino and uni, including an uni pasta. Josh will make a customized pairing for guests according to their requests. The Saketease, using unfiltered Nigori sake, is an on-menu cocktail that pairs well with quite a few seafood options.
Courtesy of Joshua Yerkey
- 1/2 oz. Lemon Juice
- 3/4 oz. Orgeat Syrup
- 1 oz. Park vs. Cognac
- 2 oz. Tozai Snow Maiden Nigori Sake
- 2 dashes Plum Bitters
Preparation: Shake with ice and strain into a rocks glass. Serve up.
POT Lobby Bar
Down the block from EMC is The Line Hotel, which has become quite a hub for culinary and imbibing activity. When The Line Hotel unveiled their recent remodel a year and a half ago, it was practically guaranteed that its collaboration with Roy Choi would be the main attraction, drawing overnight guests, laptop worker bees, food-enthusiastic lunch and dinner guests, and nightly revelers.
The two resident bars at The Line, where Mary Thompson serves as beverage director, are located in the lobby at POT and inside the greenhouse-ensconced Commissary. Mixologist Matt Biancaniello originally was brought in to consult and he riffed on “bad drinks” with updated, more sophisticated ingredients for the drink menu. Here, you can order Fuzzy Navels, Midori Sours, White Russians, and Long Island Iced Teas without any of the guilt. The blue-wooded hexagonal bar is a great excuse for afternoon drinking and eating as is its daily, four-and-a-half hour long happy hour which includes food specials. (If you prefer to be productive, the wi-fi is free, and you can order coffee and choose from a variety of sweet Asian treats across the way at POT Cafe.)
POT Bar turns up the volume – a lot – on weekend nights. While the spirits in Matt’s Long Island Iced Tea outnumber those in the original, it’s leaps and bounds better while tasting evocative of the original. A surprise awaits you at the bottom of each sip through the boba straw in the form of aloe vera chunks:
POT Lobby Bar Long Island Iced Tea
Courtesy of Matt Biancaniello
- 3/4 oz, Mezcal
- 3/4 oz. Aquavit
- 3/4 oz. Gin
- 3/4 oz. Smith and Cross Rum
- 3/4 oz. Batavia Arrack
- 3/4 oz. Lemon
- 3/4 oz. Agave
- 1 oz. Blood Orange Juice
- Aloe Vera Chunks
Preparation: Place aloe vera chunks in the bottom of a glass. Shake all ingredients (except aloe vera chunks) with ice. Pour over the aloe vera chunks. Serve with boba straw.
On the rooftop (second floor still qualifies) of The Line Hotel is Commissary, a restaurant and bar which occupies a poolside greenhouse. It’s open for lunch and dinner, offering vastly different ambiances for each but also similarly vegetable-focused menus. The drink menu is mostly made of easy sippers, and is also tooled for volume at night, keeping the focus on fresh produce. And though Commissary’s cocktail vessel — a “To Go” plastic soup container — remains controversial, it is perfectly coded for guests enjoying the pool less than 50 feet away from the bar.
Pimps Cup by Matt Biancaniello
- 2 oz. Homemade Pimms*
- 3/4 oz. Lime Juice
- 1/2 oz. Agave Syrup (1:1 ratio of water to agave)
- 2 Cucumber Slices, 1/8″ Thick
- 2 Shiso Leaves
- 1/4 oz. Ginger Juice
- Flowering Basil, for Garnish
Preparation: Muddle everything except Pimms together. Then add Pimms, shake and strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with flowering basil.
Homemade Pimms: 1 part gin, 1 part sweet vermouth, 1/2 part Grand Marnier, 1/2 part cherry heering infused with fresh rhubarb and peaches
Break Room 86 at The Line Hotel
Mark and Johnnie Houston are responsible for much of the sophisticated nightlife resurgence that has occurred in Hollywood the past few years. Vintage themes with period-dressed clientele, secret entrances, burlesque performances, and quality cocktails are all hallmarks of a Houston bar — and there’s no sign of their stopping. Their latest installment, Break Room 86, is in the back of The Line Hotel. It’s ’80s themed and a departure in that it’s away from Hollywood. But in a bit of kismet, it brings the brothers full circle as Koreatown is where they grew up.
“Opening a bar in Koreatown seemed like the next step in a natural progression of our growth. This is our home and it’s tied to so many great ’80s childhood memories,” observes Mark Houston.
“Break Room ends up becoming a place where people make a night of it, drawing awareness to a neighborhood that is just now becoming a destination. In my opinion, it really complements the community because locals appreciate it and people that come out here just for Break Room get to experience K-town for the first time.”
The decor and music at Break Room 86 will make you wax nostalgic for the days you toted a Trapper Keeper in your Jansport, and you can even sing along to your nostalgia in one of four hidden karaoke rooms that are available for drop-in or reservation. Or, play Atari in them; there’s also a two-person Pac-man console on the smoking patio.
Bottle service is also available and primed for karaoke room purposes. The walls are lined with lockers that are available for rent, whether you’re a regular with bottles to safe keep or a birthday girl or boy with valuables to set aside. Customers enjoying the main room will be treated to two available burlesque performances every Thursday through Sunday taking place literally on top of the bar’s top shelf, which is lowered on hydraulics expressly for such entertainment.
The drink menus are presented inside plastic VHS cases with amusingly named cocktails that read as neon as the ’80s looked, but actually run the gamut in terms of taste and ingredients. There’s the Rock-It Pop, visually reminiscent of that Rocket popsicle from childhood, the Dr. J, an extra boozy Tiki drink with Paddy’s Irish whiskey, Plantation overproof rum, and Giffard Vanille de Madagascar, and the Devo-inspired Are We Not Men? with Monkey Shoulder scotch, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and Krogstad Gamle aquavit. The popular Ecto Cooler goes down easy, and is more tasty than it is green, which is a great thing.
Courtesy of Joseph Swifka
- 1 oz. Altos Tequila
- 1 oz. Sage-Infused Noilly Pratt Extra Dry Vermouth
- 1/2 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
- 1 1/2 oz. Cucumber Syrup*
- 1 dash Celery Bitters
- 1 pinch Maldon Smoked Salt
- Mint Sprig, for Garnish
Preparation: Shake and serve up in wine glass. Garnish with mint sprig.
*Cucumber syrup: Juice cucumbers and combine equal parts cucumber juice with simple syrup.
Around the corner and down the block from The Line Hotel is the nondescript Normandie Club from Proprietors, LLC, Cedd Moses and Eric Needleman. Opening just one month prior to Break Room 86, it’s also the partnership’s first foray into Koreatown. And it’s an understated one at that. It’s so incognito, you might miss it if you blink while you’re walking towards it.
However, what the bar lacks in flashiness, it makes up for in quality of the drinks. The light-bricked, dark-hued bar is any serious cocktailian’s dream, with an ultra refined menu that features incredibly smooth versions of classics. Choose from a refreshing Spritz, an Old Fashioned with coconut-infused bourbon, a Manhattan with cocoa nib-infused Cynar, a Collins with Yellow Chartreuse, and Fino Sherry in the Martini.
The difference at Normandie Club is in the details. But the great thing is that there’s a decided lack of pretension to the space, making for an inviting place to drink for locals.
“We love Koreatown – the density, the food and drinks culture, and its proximity to everything on the East side,” says David Kaplan.
“There’s also a great sense of discovery that comes with Koreatown that’s in keeping with our style of bars. Our aim is to be a cocktail bar for the neighborhood; a place of exceptional quality with no pretense that you can make your daily. We hope that Normandie will be a great local and a bit of a destination as well – which is what we’re already seeing.”
Courtesy of Devon Tarby and Alex Day
- 2 oz. Grey Goose Vodka
- 1 oz. Alexander Jules Fino Sherry
- 1 tsp. Raw White Honey Syrup (1:1 Honey to Water)
- Sel Gris, in an Atomizer*
Preparation: Stir and strain into a Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with atomized Sel Gris.
Atomized Sel Gris: Combine gray sea salt with water in an atomizer.
The district is about to be met with yet another bar opening: the 27-seat Walker Inn is located through a secret door in the back of Normandie Club. In a move seen as a doubling down by the same suspects who own its bar front, The Walker Inn features a recessed bartender, a bar subscription service and a duo of menus with classic and rotating cocktails of a theme.
The Normandie and the collective bars at The Line Hotel are a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and they cement these particular few blocks in Koreatown as a drinking destination — no matter your drinking style. While there have been other Los Angeles neighborhoods, such as Hollywood and Downtown’s Arts District, that have been getting attention for becoming go-to places to drink, Koreatown’s time is right now.