Recently, I was looking for an LA bar that had great cocktails, a friendly atmosphere, and of course, a little Hollywood flavor for a drinks gathering. I found The Famous lounge and flipped for it. And I’m not the only one. Details magazine just named The Famous one of the best bars in America.
Established on the site of The Famous Department Store, hence the name, the bar has maintained much of the historic Huntley-Evans building’s original brickwork and exposed piping. These design elements gives the place a warm, inviting feeling.
One of my guests, TV writer Pang-Ni Landrum (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Six Degrees”) said, “This is like ‘Cheers’!” She was so impressed with the place she immediately texted her husband, actor Ian Vogt (“Bunheads,” “The Mentalist,” “Everwood”), to suggest that he host his next guys night out at The Famous. Director Barbara Stepanksy (“Hurt,” “Fugue,” “Life Saver”) said she wanted to have her birthday at The Famous. In fact, while we were there a wedding party celebrated in the back. The radiant bride took a moment for an impromptu photo op atop a motorcycle parked inside the bar. The vibe was laid-back and exuberant at the same time. So to say folks dug the place is a bit of an understatement. However, ambience is just part of the equation of a great bar. It also must deliver the goods – great drinks.
The Famous prides itself on its craft cocktails, the aspect that first attracted me. To create the bar’s amazing drinks selection, Luke Leonard, the bar’s general manager, has brought together a stellar crew, starting with head bartender Nick Vitulli. Nick is formerly the bar manager of the reservations-only £10 bar in Beverly Hills’ Montage Hotel, where he created its cocktail service. Nick seems very much at home in the more chill atmosphere of The Famous. It’s his motorcycle stashed next to the bar.
Luke Leonard has also recruited former Harvard and Stone head bartender Matt Wallace, who is well-known for his whiskey knowledge. While on a “scouting” run on the bar, I had a chance to chat with Nick and Matt. I also enjoyed talking with bartender Chris Raba, who has a keen interest in absinthe. Luke has really gone out of his way to hire people who love the craft of bartending. These are not folks who are making drinks until something else comes along (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Luke has simply hired career bartenders who have a passion for mixing the best damn drinks imaginable.
Even our server, Megan Arseneaux, was exceptional. A New Orleans native, she deftly served a party of 25 ordering a wide variety of drinks. One of my guests, punk rocker and reality-docu producer Jeff Penalty, asked if they had lemonade. While it’s not something the bar normally stocks, Megan didn’t miss a beat. She said, “We’ll make it up.” And they did. So while The Famous has its own suggestions, they will roll with your requests – alcoholic and nonalcoholic. However, I recommend trying The Famous’ cocktails.
Nick Vitulli has crafted a complex yet approachable list of signature cocktails, including one of my favorites, the Vitulli. Yep, it’s named for Nick. This rye whiskey drink pulls together Amaro Nonino, sweet vermouth, along with Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is an aromatic, bitter spirit made with 27 herbs from five continents. You may recall in “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, says he goes to Italy every year, visits the same restaurant, and enjoys a glass of Fernet Branca. Hey, if Alfred and Nick have a taste for it, I’ll definitely give it a try.
The first thing I noticed about the Vitulli is the wonderful orange aroma from the Amaro Nonino. It invites you right into the drink. Next I tasted a very smooth rye whiskey. The drink ends with a complex finish of Fernet Branca. There is a lovely treat at the bottom of this drink, a Luxardo cherry. I’m not one for cherries in drinks, thank you very much, but this dark-colored jewel had me. It was the perfect cap to this cocktail.
Another standout on The Famous’ signature list is the Live Young Die Fast. Wow! Talk about something completely different: Beefeater gin, basil, black pepper syrup, and fresh lime juice. Music video and commercial director Jeff Stewart had a couple sips of mine and went straight to the bar to order his own. The basil opens this drink nicely. And honestly, my taste buds exploded with the gin, black pepper, and lime flavors. The black pepper simple syrup stayed with me pleasantly so. Luke mentioned they grow all their herbs on the roof of the bar, so everything is fresh. This is a drink where the freshness of the ingredients is readily apparent.
Author Melinda Corazon Foley (“The Ice Hotel,” “The Cure”) was kind enough to send a Grey Goose and Vodka cocktail my way. The Grey Goose and Vodka has no vodka in it. In fact, The Famous doesn’t even stock Grey Goose. The name comes from an inside bartender’s joke. You probably know that Grey Goose is a brand of vodka; however, some people actually order Grey Goose and vodka not knowing what the heck Grey Goose is. The Famous’ Grey Goose and Vodka is made with Beefeater gin, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, and a splash of agave nectar. This is a wonderfully smooth citrus cocktail. And despite the usually tart grapefruit and lime juices, mine had a balanced sweetness to it. Because it goes down so easily, it’s very popular and a great first drink to try, especially if you’re just getting into craft cocktails.
As I mentioned, The Famous doesn’t stock Grey Goose. You’re also out of luck if you want a Jack and Coke. However, Luke, Nick, and the entire bar staff work year-round to stock the most interesting, best-tasting, best-mixing spirits. Check out their impressive liquor list on their website.
Despite its name, The Famous is an unpretentious and approachable bar for true cocktail drinkers. Whether you’re just dipping a toe in or know your own way around a cocktail shaker, you’ll find Luke and his staff are incredibly accommodating. If you want an Old Fashioned, it’ll likely be the best, truest Old Fashioned you’ve had. Plus, they make a point of stocking some great beers. Editor Nicole Opyr (“The Glee Project,” “Pretty”) was stoked to find Longboard Lager and Yeti Imperial Stout on tap.
What’s more, classic black and white films are projected throughout the bar. Buster Keaton’s “Go West” was playing while we were there. It was a big hit with my friends.
As you can tell, I flipped for The Famous. It’s in Glendale, which is a suburb of Los Angeles, but it’s totally worth the jaunt. The bar is located at 154 South Brand Boulevard directly across from the Americana, a shopping complex á la The Grove. There is plenty of parking, something I dig, especially when inviting friends to join me. And this drinks gathering was a blast.
Thanks to Luke Leonard and his wonderful staff.
Want to check out The Famous yourself? Here’re the details:
154 South Brand Boulevard, Glendale, CA 91204
Across from The Americana at Brand
Dress code: Nice. No sports attire or beachwear please.
Hours: M-F 5pm-2am Sat-Sun 6pm-2am
Keep your glass half-full. Drink responsibly.