Granted, there’s a well-established rivalry between NYC and Los Angeles when it comes to sports and rap, but if you want to debate which of these two cities has the best dark and boozy haunts (where barflies reign supreme and high enders are sent a-hoppin’), let’s just say L.A. doesn’t exactly play poodle to Manhattan’s pit bull. But if you’re more inclined toward Bukowski than Benchley, this top five roster of bloodshot seedies will give you some pretty ugly ideas about where to get low in L.A. if you’re up for an affordable guzzle, great tunes and a good time. – Kevin Byrne
Outfitted with enough oddball trinkets and nautical novelties to make even Captain Jack Sparrow twirl his beaded mustache in delight, the old R is run on the skirts of K-town as if it were a seafaring speakeasy back in the days of daggerboards and deadwood. There’s even a piratical password at the door of this dive to allow for entry. No joke, Jolly Roger: if you don’t utter it, you’re not getting in. So how does one get said password? PSHAW. Like we’re gonna tell you, ye scurvy dogs. (Only kidding: it’s “Yo ho ho.”) Once you’ve boarded, belay your fears and belly up to the bar. Dark, heavy drapes and lamplighting set the mood, and there’s plenty of brass tacks grog to get you through any stormy night (bottled beers will top off at $7 and mixers for a $9 max). And don’t pronounce the place’s name like that old Kennedy yacht, unless you either don’t wanna get served or tossed off a gangplank into Davy Jones’ Locker. So to speak.
The Alibi Room
As gregarious and glitzy, top-heavy and trendy some Tinseltown nightclubs can be, a few rare and fine rooms manage to blend into the background, and that’s where only the most discerning drinker will find them, should they be intrepid enough to seek ‘em out. Cheap drinks aside, that’s what makes a local lounge like The Alibi such a standout. Essentially a single room with an off-kilter bar, an un-cushioned billiard table and one finely-stocked juke, this dive has a splendid array of affordable cocktails – if you’re feeling daring, try the Revolution (organic gin, lillet blanc, St. Germain liqueur, prosecco) or the Del Rey (tequila, chambord liqueur, fresh lemon juice, ginger beer) – a solid roster of beers (over 25 choices), and some truly fantastic eats (great tapas, much of it Kogi BBQ). Get there early, stay late, and remember: if anyone asks … you weren’t there.
Scarlet Lady Saloon
All but hidden in the heart of a non-descript Culver City strip mall and bookended by a discount cigarette store and a vacuum-repair shop, The Scarlet Lady is not a place about décor and dazzle. Aside from a series of plastic beer banners that adorn the walls and NASCAR lighting fixtures over the pool tables, the scenery is functional at best. Besides, the main objective here is to buy a pitcher of draft, listen to some tunes on the juke, shoot the bull and maybe a game of stick. And like any solid neighborhood watering hole-in-the-wall, the Lady has a well-kept and friendly personality, where every patron is treated equally and with the proper respect. But if things get ugly in the community rec room, democracy reigns. To wit: remember you’re local here. So lay back and lose the ‘tude.
One of the last of Hollywood Boulevard’s dyed-in-the-wool dives, the Frolic is a small, dark and friendly joint where folks can enjoy a low-rent cocktail and some quiet convo under amber-lighting in an unseedy setting straight out of a James Ellroy novel. Hell, even the bouncer wears a bow-tie. Popular with the post-theater and concert crowds, Frolic’s average assemblage is largely dependent on who’s playing the Pantages or the Palladium on a particular night. But crammed or not, all the bartenders are friendly and serve up drinks the way most like ‘em: cheap, stiff and fast. And really, who’s gonna complain about something like that besides a fascist? By the way, while you’re absorbing this indoor scene, be sure to get a gander at the ancient wallpaper: you’ll get a kick out of the caricatures.
Tiki-Ti Cocktail Lounge
Don Ho may be dead and buried on the shores of Waikiki, but his still-bubblin’ spirit is alive and well and living in Tiki-Ti, a true-blue Hawaiian-styled hideaway on Sunset, which first opened its bamboo-framed doors in 1961. Kitschy and cash only, this tiki landmark is always packed in every sense, but most of all with personality. The moment you set foot inside, you’re swept up in a veritable tidal wave of friendly noise and good cheer, thanks to its boisterous regulars and bartenders, all of whom are so incredibly adept at their concoctions (don’t even try to decide from the menu roster, which seems to run into the hundreds) and convincing in their recommendations, you’ll gladly drink whatever they give you. And all of the drinks – whether named something accidental like Ray’s Mistake, as deadly as Cobra’s Fang or as salacious as the all-time fave (and infamous) Uga Booga – are both delicious and strong, but they aren’t cheap. So bring plenty of green for pay for your gas. Trust me, you’ll be back for more. Also, this is a family-owned place, so smoking is allowed. As for attire, please: no Hawaiian shirts. Leave that to the staffers, who probably wear ‘em a lot better than you do.
Frank ‘N Hank’s
Rumored to be a favorite haunt of L.A.’s poet laureate of the low-life, Charles “Hank” Bukowski, this dreary, dirt-cheap, cash-only estab may be the last of a dying breed in the City of Angels, but since drinks are still served at all-time-low prices and around the clock, it still manages to draw a fascinating mix of both hardscrabble regulars and polished professionals from all over town, which says something about both the scene and the economy. Amusement on site is your standard fare: the pool table, dartboard and juke is more than enough to keep the quaffers occupied. And, like the tough guy bartender Nick once said in that classic Christmas film we all know and love so well: “We serve hard drinks here for men who wanna get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.” Take that cynical dialogue to heart and you’ll not only have the essence of Frank n Hanks, you’ll be glad to blend in with the crowd.