Even after finally opening it's doors to the public late last year, Chinatown's General Lee's is still the LA bar scene's best kept secret. It's an adventure to find even if you know where to look--tucked away in a wide alley, marked by one red bench out front and a tiny neon marquee above the doorway.
But General Lee's is far from intentionally exclusive.
"Ultimately, we're a place where you can just get whatever you want," says head bartender Garett Mikkell. "I can explain the history of gin to you with one hand and pour you a vodka red bull with the other. We're here for everybody."
The inside is inherently welcoming--a second story lounge, big palm-frond drapes, wood everything. Despite the wide-open layout, it's almost cozy, like a secret tiki hut in the middle of the city. And, of course, the drinks will keep you around.
The Lost Orient Sour is a good place to start: a sweet, smoky drink with Union mezcal, lemon, and black sesame syrup, reminiscent of Lapsang Souchong tea.
The East is East is equally unique, a refreshing Old Fashioned-type cocktail with an Asian spin. The soft, floral notes of oolong-infused vermouth brighten the more delicate flavors of rye and cognac, and bitters play nicely with dry curaçao. These are clever drinks.
At first glance, the cocktails can seem overwrought, showcasing ingredients like rose hip infused lillet blanc, white pepper tincture, and black sesame syrup, but they're insanely drinkable and far from pretentious. It's indicative of the attitude of the bar itself: just as cool as you think it is, but twice as nice. The bartenders will throw back a shot with you. The security guard will ask you how your night's going, and want to know the answer.
The bar's name pays homage to General Lee's Chinese restaurant, which occupied the venue from 1878 to 1985. Before it closed it's doors, it was a favorite spot of Frank Sinatra and Gary Cooper. Judy Garland used to bring her little daughter, Liza Minelli, in for lunch.
This incarnation of General Lee's aims to instill this same spirit again--a cool watering hole where everyone will want to come, and stay for a while.
"We want to bring back what this used to be," Mikkell says. "We're not just another high volume craft cocktail bar. We have a deep, rich history."
Michael de la Madrid