Serious Eats: Drinks
Sonny's Hideaway: Northeast Los Angeles Newcomer is an Instant Classic
York Boulevard in Highland Park is one of those LA neighborhoods living through an extended personality crisis. Record stores, gastropubs, art galleries, and cafes are sandwiched between taquerias, auto shops, and beauty salons. On polarized streets like this one, streets that wobble halfway between the old and the new, both the newest business and the oldest business on the block tend to stick out like sore thumbs.
But Sonny's Hideaway—one of the very newest spots on York—doesn't feel out of place, doesn't shout its noveltym even though it only opened its doors on April 26th of this year. It seems, somehow, to have belonged on the block for a while.
The superficial part of that—the unassuming look of the place, that is—may be no accident. The bar's name comes from a sketchy neighborhood dive that owner Derek Lyons eyed with intrigue as a child. Perhaps the shady, mysterious bar from that childhood memory inspired the current bar's understated facade: an austere slate gray wall that practically works as urban camouflage. Only the bright red door and the cheery globe lamp hanging over the entrance give away that you are, indeed, welcome.
When inside, you'll find Sonny's feels lived-in and familiar. The space is divided in two, with a long wooden cocktail bar flanking one wall, and the booths and tables making up the dining area opposite. There's a patio out back, too. The menu balances comfort and adventure, with items like cold fried chicken, and clams in a smoked grape broth that is simply... Stopping myself there: we're here to drink.
Bar Manager Kelly O'Hare is the man behind the cocktails at Sonny's Hideaway. Local and seasonal ingredients appear in his drinks, but the star of the menu is a broad assortment of amari and herbal liqueurs. If you love your drinks brown, bitter, and stirred, you'll be in heaven.
O'Hare is in the process of rolling out the fall cocktail menu, and one of the new drinks will be the Crystal Plumage ($13). It's made with Leopold's Navy strength gin from Colorado, plus Cocchi Americano and rich Zucca Rabarbaro, served up, with a misting of grapefruit oil. With just three ingredients, it's amazing how complex this cocktail is. Bitter and sweet would be a broad description; if asked to elaborate, I'd point out layers of citrus, flowers, and berries. The grapefruit oil brings out the sweetness in the amaro, making the drink complete.
Earthiness and sweetness balance each other in the Bourbon Fig Punch ($10), a dangerously easy to drink overproof punch. ('Overproof' means that this punch is considerably stronger than the textbook variety—as strong as any other cocktail on the menu. You've been warned!) Made from a variety of locally-sourced figs—predominantly Black Mission—that are cooked down and steeped with Evan Williams Bourbon, then mixed into an oleo-saccharum made with orange and lemon, plus Strega and wormwood bitters. This whiskey-forward punch has a delicate fig and herb flavor with potent citrus notes.
The Sonny's menu also has sections for lower-alcohol and booze-free drinks, which may be easier to pair with a meal than some classic cocktails. The Tarantella ($10), for example, combines Cocchi Americano, Amaro CioCiaro, Contratto Vermouth Rosso, a little St. George Terroir Gin, lemon and basil oil, and a fresh basil garnish. The basil highlights the woodsy aromas from the gin while the vermouth and amaro play up the citrus in the background. Served on the rocks, it is wonderful to sip with dinner, and just as tasty on its own.
Sonny's Hideaway is pretty new, but it feels like it belongs here already. Why? Maybe it's that Sonny's is checking the right boxes for an earthy, real-life bar: the lighting's low, the leather-cushioned booths are comfortable. There seems to be no fumbling with half-cocked experiments—the bartenders are clearly seasoned, there's experience on display in the crafting of the menu itself, even when the recipes are bold or the techniques used are progressive. And the team behind the place has already been here for years, running another place across the street.
I admit it: I don't know why Sonny's seems right at home on York. I do know that I'm glad it's here, and that I'm glad when I'm here, enjoying a cocktail or two. Or three.
(By the way, happy hour is everyday Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and features a $5 peated Scotch punch. How's that for bold?)
About the Author: Elana Lepkowski is a Los Angeles based home-schooled mixologist who photographs and shares her cocktail recipes at StirAndStrain.com. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @elanabean where she sometimes forgets she needs a filter.