It all started with a text message from Rivera‘s Julian Cox: “You, me, Thursday Friends and Family, Tar Pit. You down?” Hmm…go to a sneak preview of the most talked-about bar in town? Gosh, tough call! After carefully pulling my car over to text my reply, plans were arranged and we headed out to a superb evening of cocktails.

The Tar Pit is a collaboration between a truly stellar group of restaurant and mixology heavyweights. Food, wine, and operations are overseen by the Campanile team of Executive Chef Mark Peel, Managing Partner Jay Perrin, and Wine Director Taylor Parson. The cocktail menu was created by Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club) and Chad Solomon and Christy Pope (Cuff & Buttons).

Walking into the Tar Pit is like stepping into a supper club from Hollywood’s Golden Age, exactly as the creative team intended. Taking its cues from the legendary Cocoanut Grove and My Man Godfrey, Tar Pit’s design oozes class and sophistication, a place where you’d imagine Nick and Nora Charles would have a drink (or three).

We commandeered one of the booths set against the back wall. Cut out panels separate the booths to ensure privacy without closing off groups, allowing guests to discreetly peek at adjoining tables’ orders. Even the coat racks (a nice touch) were designed to the period.

The mood was set by a jazz trio playing holiday standards from a stage that will (hopefully) see plenty of use in the days ahead. Mark Peel chatted with guests while also checking in on the kitchen. Due to an injury, Audrey Saunders wasn’t able to mingle, but instead held court in a corner of the bar. Servers were nattily attired in black, dishing out passed trays of sample-sized cocktails and bites.

Cucumber-Mint Creole

Guests were treated to half a dozen cocktails from the Tar Pit’s full Specialty Cocktails menu, including these Neo-Classics:

Cucumber-Mint Creole – gin, aquavit, sherry, muddled cucumbers, muddled mint, fresh lemon juice. The herbal notes of the gin and aquavit were offset by the cucumber and mint, with the sherry adding a perfect touch of sweetness. Our first-ever drink at the Tar Pit, and a great start to our evening.

Jamaican Firefly – dark rum, housemade ginger beer, lime juice, simple syrup. Probably our favorite of the samples we had, Tar Pit’s take on the classic Dark and Stormy is a wonderful combination of flavors.

Agave Bravo

Agave Bravo – tequila, mezcal, agave nectar, lemon essence. Although it wasn’t on the printed menu, samples of the Agave Bravo were part of the preview. The smoky mix of tequila and mezcal was tempered by the agave nectar, enhanced by a hint of citrus.

The Flame of Love – bay leaf infused vodka, fino sherry, flamed orange peel. A variation on a drink created for Dean Martin by Chasen’s Pepe Ruiz. There’s a surprising depth of flavor from the simple recipe.

Aperol Sunset – tequila, aperol, demerara syrup, grapefruit syrup, fresh lemon juice. Julian somehow ended up with a full size version of this one; a solid cocktail, though a bit tart for my tastes.

The Flame of Love

Also served last night, but we didn’t get to try:

  • Gin Gin Mule – gin, mint, lime simple syrup, housemade ginger beer.
  • Lemon Thyme Daiquiri – white rum, muddled lemon thyme, housemade lime syrup, lime juice.
  • Old Cuban – aged rum, muddled mint, fresh lime jice, Angostura bitters, topped with champagne.

Neo-Classicals and Tributes are priced at a reasonable $11, while Champagne Opportunities (e.g. the Old Cuban) are $16.

To go with the libations, bites from the Bar Menu (“where food and beverages get to play in the sandbox together”) included:

Cold

  • Pickled Deviled Egg – shaved Smithfield ham
  • Saffron-Scented Shrimp Cocktail – seville orange remoulade
  • Duck Rillette & Stilton – pickled pearl onions, mustard, smoked salt, multigrain toast

Hot

  • Fried Oysters – crisp ginger remoulade
  • Artichokes Trastevere – cynar aioli, deep-fried lemon

By far our favorite bite was the shrimp cocktail, which was outstanding. The fried oysters were a close second for me, though Julian practically swooned over the pickled deviled eggs. The lone bite from the Dining Menu was the Gnocchi with Escargots (crisp garlic, parsley, butter, olive oil), very good but not something I’d go out of my way to order. Like the cocktails, the food menu is reasonably priced, with entrees topping out at $17 (Lobster & Scallop Newberg, Steak Diane).

Diners can choose from a list of 27 wines, featuring “unique varietals and up-and-coming regions.” All bottles are $38.

Aperol Sunset

During our session we were briefly joined by Wyatt Peabody, author of a series of excellent articles for LA Times Magazine, including a snapshot of our city’s cocktail scene and a profile of Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper. The shop talk between Julian and Wyatt was great to observe; my contribution to the discussion consisted of occasional laughs and nods of agreement.

Head Bartender Marcos Tello (formerly at the Edison) also stopped by, visibly excited and justifiably proud. During the preview he was behind the well, mixing all the sample drinks for the servers to dish out, while the rest of his team helmed the bar. He confirmed that Tar Pit will eventually offer gueridon service for food and cocktails, so expect to see trolleys with servers filleting, carving, flambéing, and mixing tableside.

Dave Kupchinsky makes a couple of Tributes.

As the preview wound down, staff set up tables on the empty main floor and two tops along the back aisle. At 9:30pm, The Tar Pit was officially open for business!

This of course, was cause for celebration, so before heading out to a late dinner, we bellied up to the bar for a final round. We put ourselves in the capable hands of Dave Kupchinsky, who was trained by Julian when they were both at Comme Ça

Trident (Robert Hess, 2000)

Coming soon: The Night Marcher.

Dave mixed us a couple of drinks from the Tributes section of the cocktail menu:

Trident (Robert Hess, 2000) – aquavit, fino sherry, cynar aperitif, peach & orange bitters, lemon essence. This one hit hard at first, pungent and bitter. But a few sips in, its profile softened and the drink became something else entirely. It’s not for everyone, but we both really appreciated its complexity and depth. We also loved the long-stemmed glass.

Lil Jig (Phil Ward, 2006) – silver tequila, yellow chartreuse, thai basil, simple syrup. Not as memorable as the Trident, but a fine drink for tequila lovers. Also served in that great glass.

Dave then showed us the infamous Night Marcher tiki mug, complete with ball gag. It’s not yet on the menu, but his description of what the cocktail will look like should ensure its renown. The NY Times recently posted the Night Marcher recipe.

Just as we were about to leave, Daniel Eun (The Varnish) handed us an extra Jamaican Firefly that happened to be laying around. It’s almost like the Tar Pit didn’t want us to leave. But leave we finally did, after a brief chat with Audrey and the promise of many return visits to come.

Jamaican Firefly

The Tar Pit
609 N. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, California 90036
(323) 965-1300
www.tarpitbar.com

Open daily from 5pm-2am.
Limited bar menu available from 5-7pm, and 11pm-1am. Full menu available from 7-11pm.

Update 12/21: For more impressions and pics from the Tar Pit preview event, be sure to check out these great posts:

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