Until a time machine is invented, you can satiate your need for nostalgia in the bars of Los Angeles. From decade or periodically-themed locations to bars that are nearly a century-old, drinking in Los Angeles can be a nostalgic experience. There’s even a bar that’s entrance is through a refrigerator. Here is a round-up of LA’s best and most memorable watering holes.
Clifford Clinton founded the Clifton’s Cafeteria chain in 1931, but this one on Broadway is the last remaining. It is fabulously decorated, with themes that change throughout. A massive Redwood rises through the second floor, a fireplace flickering inside. Taxidermy may remind you of field trips to the Natural History Museum. A twinge of middle school nostalgia may occur when winding through the cafeteria—there’s a carving station with sides like mashed potatoes and mac & cheese; a soup and salad bar; pizza, and a bevy of desserts including Clifton’s colorful, old-school gelatins. Cocktails, beer, and wine are available on second and third floor bars, while tiki drinks can be found on the fourth floor at Pacific Seas. Perhaps one of the most nostalgic aspects is the happy hour special where you can get a cocktail for less than 50 cents with purchase of another drink or a meal.
Highland Park bowl came about in 1927, making it Los Angeles’ oldest bowling alley. In 1966, it became Mr. T’s Bowl, and the name change came with a complete renovation. Today, however, the old feel of the original alley is back, thanks to an immaculate renovation courtesy of 1933 Group. Vintage towels hang on the walls, while bowling pin chandeliers make for an on-theme decorative touch. Bowlers can rent one of eight restored lanes, then take a seat on the caramel leather couches near the ball returns. Or, guests can slide up to one of two horseshoe-shaped bars for craft cocktails and beer, best enjoyed with one of their wood-fired pizzas.
The Rainbow Room is one spot on the Sunset Strip where time seems to have stopped sometime in the 80s. Hair metal and hard rock is on the stereo. The scarlet dining room serves Italian fare, while the bar offer stiff, uncomplicated drinks. Guests often come donning 80s hair metal fashion; it’s not uncommon to see a high showing of leather, bandanas, hairspray, and spikes among the crowd. For live music, patrons can wander up to the second floor where local bands—both original and of the cover variety—perform on a regular basis. The loft above is designated with a sign declaring it the Lair of the notorious Hollywood Vampires, a cadre of rock stars of which Alice Cooper, John Lennon, and Keith Moon were members. Outside stands a statue of Lemmy Kilmister, the Motörhead frontman who was a regular until his death in 2015.
Mad Men seemed to renew our collective interest in mid-century modern, if, of course, we’d ever lost it. This West Hollywood cocktail bar takes its inspiration from Pan Am airlines in the 1960s, with its rich flight pattern murals, blue and gold collar scheme, and airport artwork. Cocktails are clever, too. Their take on a paloma comes in a can of Squirt, while their From Russia With Love martini is a crisp, clean martini that has a certain garden zest. Live music occurs throughout the week, including live jazz and DJs spinning 50s rock, soul, and funk. (Obviously, they refer to this as ‘in-flight entertainment.’)
Brothers Mark and Jonnie Houston say this bar is a tribute to their father, David Wayne Houston, who they describe as “a blue-collar pool shark who enjoyed late nights in his garage, building and fixing things.” Thus, the bar feels like you’re hanging out in your dad or uncle’s house in the 1970s, throwing back a cold one and listening to classic rock on vinyl. Guests enter through a mock garage’s fridge door, revealing a perfectly decorated 70s bachelor pad in shades of brown and avocado green. An outdoor patio features an Airstream trailer where boozy snow cones and beer are served and small bites are fired up on the grill. This bar tends to get packed at night and on the weekends, so guests may want to arrive early to avoid a line.
Located near the notable intersection of Hollywood and Vine, Frolic Room’s neon sign beckons tourists and locals alike. The bar dates back to the 30s, and is one of the neighborhood’s only remaining long-standing dives. It’s small, narrow, and dark, with seats around the bar and a line of red stools opposite. These stools face a mural of carousing celebrity caricatures. Drinks are relatively cheap, and patrons tend to be social whether they’re just getting out of work or going to a show at the Pantages theater next door. Poet Charles Bukowski was reportedly a Frolic Room regular.
Break Room 86 feels like taking a DeLorean back to the 80s, with new wave on the stereo and bartenders straight out of Cocktails. Guests enter through a secret entrance around the side of The LINE Hotel, and can then beeline for the bar where 80s-themed craft cocktails are served. Guests who linger in this area long enough may see the back bar lower on hydraulics to reveal a stage. Here, dancers perform in the style of Michael Jackson or other 80s pop sensations. Elsewhere, classic arcade games and private karaoke rooms—which may be rented for a fee—can be found. Weekly events include DJs, cover bands, and live band karaoke.
Musso & Frank Grill has been open since 1919 and, according to the bar, was the site of Hollywood’s first payphone. The menu skews towards classic American and Italian dishes, including weekly dinner specials like chicken pot pie or corned beef and cabbage. Bartenders and waitstaff, dapper in red jackets and black ties, have been there for years and they all have stories to tell. They’ll also serve what many publications have named the best martini in Los Angeles, if not anywhere.