Sipping Martinis and talking movies – it’s a cocktail ritual that’s been repeated for generations at Musso & Frank Grill, which is celebrating its centennial in 2019. On a quiet afternoon over the holidays, Musso’s was an especially appropriate setting to bend an elbow with Tait Forman, who owns one of the best of L.A.’s new generation of bars, Bibo Ergo Sum.
It’s one thing to be a movie fan, but for Tait, movies are his family legacy. His great-grandfather William Forman founded Pacific Theatres in 1946. He’s credited with making drive-ins popular in Southern California and is perhaps best known for opening the landmark Cinerama Dome, located less than a mile from Musso’s.
Tait’s father Christopher Forman founded ArcLight Cinemas when he saw “a shift in the landscape of exhibition. For him, it was really just about building his ideal theater, a place where he knew that people would love the movies.” Built on the former parking lot of the Cinerama Dome, the flagship ArcLight Hollywood opened in March 2002.
I mention to Forman that I saw Apocalypse Now at the Cinerama Dome and he shares a great story about how the movie’s sound editor would be in the projection booth, and during certain scenes – like right before the tiger jumps at Martin Sheen – he would turn down the volume then crank it up and blow out the speakers. “To be around, to have something of meaning like that for 50 years – you tell the story, many people have told [me] stories about seeing movies there.”
After studying history and classical studies in Boston, Forman returned to L.A. with “no clue” what he wanted to do. “I knew I wanted to be in hospitality. I ended up going into the family business – there was certainly a draw there, so I’d be the fourth generation to be in the business. I love the movies, but I was looking for something more.”
Forman started on the business and marketing side, and then began “gravitating towards the bar. Not like how I gravitate towards the bar on a Tuesday night or something – but I was trying to find more ways to get involved in the bar operation. Seeing opportunities to impact guest experience through our beverage program. So I started spending more and more time where I finally just moved over to the operations side of things.” That was when the desire for “something more” led him to start working on the business plan for Bibo Ergo Sum (Latin for “I drink, therefore I am”).
During his time on the East Coast, Forman came of age drinking [“at a legal age,” he emphasizes] on trips down to New York, where he’d visit “some of these now-legendary bars. One of the first bars I ever went to was Death & Company and it changed my mind. The attention to detail on product matched with incredible hospitality. I can still remember sitting at the bar for the first time.”
As he began working on the business plan for Bibo, Forman thought, “If I can bring that experience I had at Death & Co and bring that through with me in what I’m trying to do now, that would be great. ‘Let’s see. Maybe somebody can help me with that. Oh, Dave Kaplan, Alex Day and Devon Tarby own a consulting business. Maybe I’ll go ask them.’ [laughs] And that’s really where it started.”
Forman went to the Arts District office of Proprietors LLC and pitched them on the project. “I was terrified. They’re these industry titans, they run the cocktail world, what do I know? Nicest people in the world – as you know, and many others know. The relationship just flourished from there.”
Initially, Forman wanted Proprietors working on Bibo exclusively. “I tried to keep ArcLight at arm’s length. Ultimately we saw so much potential with what they could do with the ArcLight bar program. Brought them in with that as well and they’ve done incredible work. Looking at what a cocktail at ArcLight would have been ten years ago – it was a Martini menu until four years ago. Some pretty dramatic changes.”
Forman continues, “We’re very much aligned with consistency and setting a certain level of standards. ArcLight holds a certain level of excellence for the moviegoing experience. The bar should be part and parcel of that, and Proprietors continues to bring that expertise to what we’re doing. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Bibo Ergo Sum opened on Nov. 17, 2017 – a three-year journey from its inception. Bibo’s discreet location at Robertson Plaza literally brings Forman full circle – he was born at Cedars-Sinai, which is only a block away. “When I started I didn’t necessarily have a specific location in mind. I quickly came to that location for a couple of reasons. One, I live in that neighborhood and two – basically saw an opportunity in that neighborhood. We’re at the intersection of Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and the City of Los Angeles. The amount of communities we can hit at once was kind of a huge opportunity to me.”
“I was a little anxious at first,” he says. “Maybe the neighborhood wouldn’t go for it. Ultimately our focus on a good drink, and just a good experience I think people have found very welcoming. It’s worked out well and [I’m] really happy we’re there. It seems like that whole area is turning over. It’s not a neighborhood I would have stereotypically gone to go hang out – I gravitate to Downtown, Koreatown, Silver Lake. But there are enough people in the neighborhood that want those [kinds of] bars, that I think we’re helping to meet that need.”
Bibo Ergo Sum is flat-out gorgeous, one of the best looking bars to open in L.A. in the last few years. From the custom lighting to the flowing Art Deco lines and showcase horseshoe bar, there’s an undeniable cinematic quality to the intimate 1,800 square-foot space. “I certainly had a couple of inspiration bars in mind. I mentioned Death & Co. Drink in Boston – that industrial, minimalist aesthetic which does not translate at all into what Bibo looks like today.”
The stunning interior was created by Brooklyn-based Home Studios, which had previously created the design for Gwen in Hollywood. “Oliver [Haslegrave] kind of challenged me. ‘What are the real influences?’ For me, it was about creating a space that felt truly present now, but rooted in the history of Los Angeles. A lot of the influence came from the architectural color palette of the neighborhood. Started looking at old school photos of some of the local hotels, and it ended up creating an aesthetic that I didn’t originally have in mind but I think fits the neighborhood perfectly.”
Forman continues, “I’ve said before, the space is very elegant. It’s possibly more elegant than I wanted it to be. But ultimately we try and hold ourselves in an inviting way. So you get this level of elegance while feeling naturally comfortable the moment you walk in. You’ll be met by a member of staff, he greets you with a smile, sits you down, tells you about our story, and hopefully that puts people at ease.”
The horseshoe bar is a unique design feature and wasn’t Forman’s initial intention. “While it’s perfect the way it is, it was a bit of an engineering challenge to put everything right in the middle of the bar.”
He adds, “A lot of the magic to me at a bar is being at the bar, being in the show of the bartender in front of you. In some ways, putting the bar in the center of the room was a natural evolution of that. It gears the entire energy of the room back into what’s going on behind the bar.”
“I always say, Bibo is for whoever and whatever they want. If you’re not necessarily there to focus on somebody making a great drink, that’s great. But the space does gear your mind towards that, so you know instantly this is a place that takes cocktails seriously enough – not too seriously, but takes a certain level of care in the drinks they’re making.
The opening cocktail menu was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film, The Prestige – specifically the three parts of a magic trick: The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige.
The menu was a collaboration between Devon Tarby of Proprietors and Bibo’s GM, Daniel Zacharczuk. Forman says, “I have no expertise in creating drinks, so I will take no credit for that. But what I wanted to do was essentially create a narrative, something that allowed for three steps. We were going back and forth, how do you tell three steps. I think I was watching The Prestige on cable one night, and Michael Caine starts to go through the spiel, how do you describe a magic trick? I was sitting there, ‘Oh my God, this is it. This is three stages.’ I texted Devon, ‘I think we have our menu.’ So that was about the limit of my influence.” [laughs]
“From there, Daniel and Devon created a killer menu of drinks. Some of those I will always remember. The Grandpa Joe [bourbon, clarified orange & lemon juices, Grand Marnier, Angostura]; the Throw Some C’s [Cimarrón Reposado, lime, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao, cinnamon] is probably the most approachable yet elevated Margarita variant I’ve ever had – they’re just killer, killer drinks.”
The first year for any bar or restaurant can often be the most difficult, especially in a city as competitive as L.A. “We’ve been very fortunate. We have an incredible staff and they really do own the space. Daniel makes sure it runs exceptionally well.”
A veteran of the L.A. bar scene, Zacharczuk has worked at or helped open many of the city’s best bars over the last several years, including The Varnish, Bestia, Honeycut, and Playa. “His attention to detail is second to none,” says Forman. “He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of drinks, and just the way he brings the staff along with that as well. You can just see everybody around him leveling up to where he’s at. That doesn’t happen magically.”
Bibo launched a new cocktail menu and food offerings timed to the one-year anniversary. “We started working conceptually and R&Ding the new menu probably sometime in June, which kind of tells you how long it actually takes us to put pen to paper.” [laughs]
Zacharczuk took the lead on the current menu, which is themed Bibo Through the Ages. Forman says, “Again my input comes from a narrative perspective, trying to find ways to provide variety for our guests, an emotional connection to these sections.”
“The first [menu] was about three sections pushing an order of drinks – the Pledge, the Turn, the Prestige. This menu is about meeting the drinks where you want to be. What I mean by that is we have three different eras, and depending on how you want to step into that you can have fun with it.” First up is the pre-Prohibition Old Style. “You can nerd out on ’em if you want, some of them are wildly approachable. The Nite Lite is like an autumnal Old Fashioned, it’s just exactly what you want this time of year.”
“The Neon section is built for Friday and Saturday night. The drinks are bright and vibrant both in color and flavor. You’re chatting with a bunch of friends, you want something that’s long, orange, a little bit of smoke on it.”
“Present & Beyond is trying to be thoughtful [about] where we’re at in drinking culture. There are a lot of people around us doing incredible stuff with cocktails, thinking about what is the future of our palate, what’s the future of the drinks we’re making. That’s meant to be where we can express some of our ideas as well and just be part of that conversation.”
“A lot of people certainly had emotional connections to our past menu, which I really appreciate. But I think Daniel hit it out of the park with this menu, there’s some really, really cool stuff on there.”
One of Forman’s favorites is from Present & Beyond, the Spiked Prose: blended Scotch whisky, BES Maraschino Liqueur, Amaro Nonino, Merlot Honey, Peet’s Coffee Cream. “It’s one of the most delicious cocktails I’ve had in a long time. It’s not even a true dessert cocktail – it’s just well, well balanced.
Another standout is the Skip, Hop, an’ a Flip (aged rum, Mosaic-hopped Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Giffard Crème de Pêche de vigne, lime, demerara, egg). “I’m a huge beer nerd, and Daniel allowed himself to lean into that. We started dry hopping the mezcal with Mosaic hops, and you get this incredible floral note. Hops – you first think of beer, IPAs you think bitterness. Fortunately, I can’t perceive bitterness at all, so I never get that anyway. That’s probably why I love aperitifs and Negronis. The Skip, Hop, an’ a Flip allows those hops to really shine.”
“The interesting thing for me is seeing where both our guests and our staff take it. I was saying to someone the other day, sure I spent three years trying to control what this would be. Then we launch it and it’s no longer mine. It belongs to our staff, it belongs to our guests. Part of that is hearing what everybody is asking for. We didn’t open with a food menu. I didn’t want anything to do with food, I had no expertise in food, and everybody said, ‘When are you going to launch a food menu?’ It wasn’t necessarily trying to be something for everyone, but finding a way to do food that met our ethos, that’s excellent and still fit in with the space. Trying to continue to evolve and meet our guests where they’re at.”
Forman continues, “We wanted items that were both very approachable and easy for the space – high brow cocktails, low brow food. We started off with very basic snacks, something to keep the conversation going. Then we started introducing more meal-type items. We’ve got a gruyere grilled cheese which is wildly good.”
The Bibo Dog was tested on New Year’s Eve 2017. “You’re having a full night, maybe you’ve had a few drinks, you need something to tide you over, something of substance.” Forman notes, “Daniel is a HUGE Dodger fan. How do we do something that naturally ties into the Dodgers, L.A., being an L.A. bar? So this hot dog was born out of that. The cool thing is we get to recycle a lot of our products. The pickle spread is made from leftover cucumbers from our garnishes, the aioli is from leftover products as well.”
“It’s certainly an evolution and I don’t think we’re necessarily there yet. I think the bar can continue to ebb and flow, as long as we stay true to why we’re there. Ultimately Bibo is all about providing a great drinking experience for people who value care, connection and creativity. As long as we’re achieving that it can live its own life.”
Forman then connects the dots between the family business and his bar. “Going back to my ‘why’ – creating these spaces for people. The movies are one of the few places where you can go and truly be in community, you have to leave your phone at the door, you have to be in a space with other people. We’ve been so fortunate that we’ve been able to do that for so long. I’m just grateful to be a part of it. It’s really cool. I’m so proud of what my great-grandfather, grandfather and father have done.”
Forman continues, “My great-grandfather moved here from Seattle, since then my family’s always been rooted in L.A. and really part of the Hollywood and Los Angeles landscape. We’re just blessed to be in this city and be a part of it in some way.”
“When it comes to the bar scene, too. [When] new bars open in this city I’m so excited, I feel some sense of emotional connection to our city getting recognized for the cool stuff that people do, whether it’s the Musso & Franks, the Big Bars or the Normandie Clubs. These are incredible bars and we’re lucky to have them.”
Bibo Ergo Sum
116 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles 90048