It’s an old tradition — well, maybe as old as traditions get in this city — in which at any given moment across the last 100 years there is at least one place with a Sunset Boulevard address anointed as being “it” — the “it” bar, home to the scene, where one can see and be seen in the moment, abuzz among the drone of youth and the hum of the pretty.
The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Garden of Allah, Chateau Marmont, the Rainbow, the Whisky, the Roxy, the Viper Room and points east to Tiki-Ti, Akbar, the scene at Sunset Junction (including the original Intelligentsia Coffee location in Los Angeles, a coffee bar, yes, but a scene nonetheless), to the natural wine scene at Elf (soon to reopen) and Bar Bandini. And right now, at the dawn of a new year in Los Angeles, it is El Prado, a little barroom in the shadow of Chavez Ravine spilling out on the sidewalk of Sunset most nights, thronged with people drinking and posing and discussing the meaning of life, or at the very least, who’s there with whom.
The bar has changed hands across the decades, most recently in a prepandemic transaction between former owners Jeffrey Ellermeyer and Mitchell Frank (formerly of the Regent, the Echo and the Echoplex). Its new owner, multidisciplinary artist Nick Fisher, worked previously as El Prado’s doorman. Fisher has remade the bar as a destination for natural wine drinkers, offering an expansive, authoritative list of rare cuvées from minimal-intervention winemakers. Across the bar’s 100-bottle selection you’ll find the unfindable: minuscule-production Champagnes from producers like Timothée Stroebel and Olivier Horiot, cult white Burgundy by Frédéric Cossard and Domaine Perraud and off-kilter pink wines by Amiran Vepkhvadze and Sergio Drago. There is also an expansive, keenly focused list of rare beers by the bottle, with a focus on the ales of Belgium: Picobrouwerij Alvinne, Brasserie Fantôme and Hanssens Artisanaal.
It’s also something of a living art project, befitting the professional remit of its new owner. The bar’s frontage is framed by an elaborate mosaic by artist James Herman, giving the impression you’re entering through a veil of shattered glass. Inside the bar, which is laid out in classic shotgun fashion as a narrow corridor, there are tables by artist Nik Gelormino, who also designed the bar’s most iconic feature: an irregularly shaped, twirling, glowing disco ball, whose diffused luster fuses with candlelight, refracting and reflecting off the mirrored back bar, upon which nightly by-the-glass specials and minimal food options are neatly written by hand, including the bar’s somewhat infamous signature hot dog (more on that later).
El Prado hosts notable DJs (including recent sets by Islands and Lapalux), record releases and video installations (the current show is by Ilana Harris-Babou); there was a hot sauce promotional party called Have a Talk With God. The bar is a magnet for all manner of odd events.
“It’s always crowded,” a friend tells me. “It’ll be going off on a Tuesday,” says another. They’re both right: Prado is loud, dark and busy, the sort of place where everyone is busy talking about other places. “Have you been to Voodoo Vin? Have you been to the new Cafe Triste? Did you just come from Thai Taco Tuesday? What are you drinking?”
The temperature hovers around 50 degrees, which in Los Angeles is roughly equivalent to a polar vortex, meaning everyone is dressed for the wind-chill factor in technical high-end Puffa jackets and quilted knitwear, turtlenecks and denim shackets and jadeite dog tags and T-shirts with stochastic exclamations (“F— Your Job, the Sun Is Going to Explode!”), hair billowing out from beneath berets and beanies and ballcaps.
The average age is roughly 30, but that’s a median, not a mean. You’ve got 20-something strivers and 40-something doers, people who are looking to make their careers and people whose business it is to make, same as it ever was here in L.A. There are some people who come for the wine, that’s true; the endemic quirk of the space is in its ability to cater simultaneously to those who care deeply about such things and those who do not care in the slightest.
I’m sitting outside with a friend drinking a bottle of Jules Métras, a fashionable natural wine producer who happens to be, in the current parlance, a “nepo baby” — he is the son of Yvon Métras, one of a small group of Beaujolais winemakers credited with helping to create the modern natural wine movement in the late 20th century. These wines are exceedingly difficult to find, and my buddy tonight, who is every inch a wine geek, is beside himself in rapture and revelation over the magic it contains.
Every outdoor table (designed by artist Stephen Aldahl) is built for the game of chess, and at midnight on a Tuesday there are 20-somethings perched atop them intently, thinking deeply through a fog of fashion and nicotine about their next moves. (“Do you know chess?”… “Nah, but I’ve seen ‘Queen’s Gambit’!”) Chess pieces just sort of materialize throughout the night; one couple plays chess, then another, then another, catching on like a dance craze or a social disease.
The next night, the scene is calmer, befitting the bar’s interior, all flickering candles and offset diffused light from that unbelievable disco ball sculpture, which wobbles and wends its way in the corner, casting off atmosphere, imbued with some original enchantment. It’s “Eclectic Night” tonight, in which the bar’s soundtrack is overseen by recurring resident DJ Gerard Lollie, and about half the bar’s 20 or so counter seats are full; same goes for the cozy half-table two-tops along the brick wall and the low four-tops at the front and back of the space.
When you’re here it is, indeed, packed, even when it’s not packed — this is in many senses an intimate bar, close-quartered, that old 20th century “where strangers become friends” thing. Snippets of conversation ping-pong all around you at Prado, off the boulevard and bartop, inside and out. “We’ll just be a moment,” says a couple as they duck together, both of them, into the nongender bathroom. “People who come from places they aren’t connected to are always searching for something.” “Sometimes I worry my memories are too good, because I’m always comparing now to then, and it can’t be the same.”
The bar staff has decided to spin the entirety of Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” the crowning achievement of British producer William Orbit, recorded in 1998 about nine miles northwest of here, on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Pop culture’s inevitable nostalgic embrace of the millennium era has been well-documented, and there is something distinctly, profoundly zeitgeist-adjacent about the 23-year-olds sitting outside at Prado, drinking natural wine, singing along earnestly to this dance music released before they were born: “Zephyr in the sky at night, I wonder. Do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?”
I ask politely to bum a Marlboro 27 from a couple standing a few paces down Sunset from the bar’s muraled entrance, adjacent to El Prado’s gravitational pull but not fully in resonance with it. One of them is wearing a flowing denim jumpsuit with black tasseled loafers; the other is in buffalo plaid over dusky denim hoisted atop a pair of ratted work boots, with a gleaming golden chain above his chest.
I ask Keith Phillips (in plaid, 26) what brings him out to El Prado tonight. “I love how it feels European,” he tells me. “Tables are gathered, like, out into the street, and we’re all hanging out — but you don’t have to be dressed up. You can come here dressed sh—.”
Marc Lopez (denim jumpsuit, 19) disagrees. “I think this place is pretty chic,” they tell me. “Well — the men wear whatever they want, of course, but everyone else is dressed up and it’s beautiful.”
I ask Keith if he’s been to Europe before, and he hasn’t, and I ask Marc where they work, and they mention another natural wine bar in the neighborhood. “I just love the disco ball here, don’t you?” they ask. “It’s so … you know … irregular.”
Back inside it’s midnight and the bar is really roaring now, more and more people just arriving, the ball glittering and the mercury dropping. Clearly we’re in the place to be, and at last I see the dam break, the intellectual-cum-phenomenological barrier between El Prado’s known hot dog service and the impulse of grown adults to actually order and consume hot dogs in such tight quarters among the young and beautiful. All of a sudden the bar staff can’t make them fast enough, hot dog after hot dog.
There is no chess tonight: It’s much too busy, the street bathed in the glowing light of the Jensen’s Recreation Center and the Shoe Palace. Not a single one of them — and there are dozens of them here — wishes to be anywhere else. We’ve found the empyrean domain of young Los Angeles today.