Friday, December 29, 2017

Wilson's Words of Wisdom: Top 10 of 2017

It’s hard to believe that yet another year is in the books. 

The other day, my friends and were marveling at how quickly 2017 flew by. It feels like just yesterday we were writing out resolutions we were bound to break a few months later. 

But alas, the year's almost over, which means it's that time for me to compile my annual list of the biggest, baddest moments on the #WilsonsGuide blog this past year. 

Take a look at the most memorable highlights that yours truly has written about throughout the year and tell me: what were the highlights for you in 2017, too? 

Drop your thoughts in the comment section below and most importantly, have a fantastic New Year! 


#10) The inaugural #WilsonsGuide monthly Round Up series launched! … I kicked off the year with a brand new blog series that features different must-visit places around Los Angeles. The series started off as an accumulation of whichever interesting spots caught my attention for the month, but then organically evolved into each post having a particular theme. So now, you can find the best of the best in the city, whether it’s rooftops, hidden bars, coffee shops, fried chicken, cool outdoor places or fabulous day spas that you’re looking for. Definitely expect the series to continue next year, too!

#9) L.A. is the land of the brunches … And one restaurant that’s dishing out an incredible Sunday brunch is Firefly, in Studio City. There’s nothing like spending a few hours in the subdued but ultra chic outdoor patio, filling up on the inventive breakfast and lunch creations by Chef Perry Pollaci. You’ll find a wide range of options — from sweet to savory, healthy to decadent, and light to filling. Plus, the breakfast cocktails here put a typical mimosa to shame; one of Firefly Studio’s Bloody Marys is made with Sriracha sauce and the Pineapple Express — made with vodka, elderflower liqueur, lemon and pineapple — is as pretty to look at as it is to sip.  

#8) Some things must come to an end … And unfortunately, Studio City's Cocina Condesa was one of those cantinas that simply didn’t make it into the New Year, let alone into the second half of 2017. But it still deserves a nod for it incredible, unique take on Mexican street food. No need to get elote off the corner when you could grab some here, along with four types of guacs, ten different tacos, lots of vegetarian-friendly dishes and $5 margaritas on Mondays. Plus, there’s not many restaurants where you could bite into crunchy little toasted crickets; these critters were a hit in the Guacamole Loco, pictured below. My tears of sorrow at its closing are slowly drying and I’ll just have to check out some of the other spots — mainly The Woodman and Geezer’s Public House —  from this restaurant group.  

#7) Motown the Musical came to Los Angeles … To sweep us up in a fury of catchy show tunes, out-of-this-world dance moves and the incredible story of how the famous Motown record label came to be. Held at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Motown the Musical serves as the biography of founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and also features more than 50 Motown hits. At times during the performance, it was hard to hear the actual performers due to the audience voraciously belting along to songs, but that’s just a testament to how contagious the energy was for this three-hour production. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait long for Motown to return! 

Photo credit: Motown the Musical website

#6) The list of Top Black-Owned Restaurants, Bars, Lounges & Eateries gets expanded … For the second year in a row, I chose to highlight some of the best black-owned spots in L.A. — adding 12 new places to the list I had started in 2016. It's now at 18 strong and includes everything from traditional Southern soul food to vegan Ethiopian and good ole Chick Fil A. And, they’re casual hole-in-the-walls to fancy white-table-linen establishments. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve been on the prowl for more places to include, so expect a few more entries, come next February!  

#5) We got our travel on … Whether it was a quick trip to Palm Springs — specifically for Tangerine-Glazed Mandarin Calamari at The Tropicale — or to Monterey, which is about a half-day’s drive north off the Central Coast and offers a wide variety of fun ocean-related activities, I wanted to highlight some low in cost but high in value destinations that aren’t too far from the greater Los Angeles area. One exception was Oahu, Hawaii, which I just had to write about because it’s so darn gorgeous. And if you think visiting Oahu is only about posting up on the Waikiki beaches, think again. My island guide will have you roaming through Chinatown at night, eating some of the best authentic Hawaiian food and visiting isolated beaches off the beaten path. 

#4) Hawaii comes to Los Angeles … Speaking of Hawaii, over the summer, I got to attend the Chef Fest Preview Dinner — an amazing five course, Hawaiian-inspired dinner hosted by the Four Seasons Hualalai. Held at the swanky Redbird in DTLA, an intimate group of foodies, writers, bloggers and industry mavericks wined and dined, and most importantly, learned more about the resort and the actual Chef Fest food festival, which takes place each year in October at the Four Seasons Hualalai. From the oysters to the massive sea bass (pictured below) and roasted pineapple cheesecake, Four Seasons Executive Chef Thomas Bellec and Redbird Chef/Owner Neal Fraser made such an amazing dinner. 2018 goal: make sure that I attend the Chef Fest. Who’s coming with me?  

#3) The Gelato Festival debuted in the U.S. … For the first time ever, the Gelato Festival — already a hit in Europe that draws 50,000 attendees annually — launched in the States, making its rounds in four cities, including Santa Barbara. Just as equally exciting, yours truly was asked to be a festival judge, tasting and testing out 10 different gelatos made by gelato experts from around the world. I shared all about what it was like to be a judge, which gelato I loved the most and ultimately, which gelato maker ended up winning the entire contest in a blog post that you can read here.  

#2) Kerry James Marshall blessed us with his art … The MOCA Grand Avenue museum opened the “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry” Exhibition, which displayed the incredible paintings, artwork and larger-than-life murals that African-American artist Kerry James Marshall has created over the span of his 35-year career. Marshall positively highlights and brings undeniable worthiness to the multi-faceted black American experience, captured through his poignant and beautiful art. Running from March until July, the exhibition left the city all too soon, but you can still read all about it and catch a glimpse of his works here.

#1) A foodie festival for a very good cause … If there’s anything that I love more than eating good food, it’s eating good food for a good cause. The Masters of Taste took over the Rose Bowl once again, where more than 90 different restaurants, bars and food trucks — from all over the state — offered up bite-sized samples of food and libations. Better yet, 100 percent of proceeds — from 2,500+ ticket sales to be exact — were donated to the Union Station Homeless Services. And if you didn’t think it could get any better, it absolutely could. Even though a storm started to brew early into the afternoon, a little bit of thunder and lightning and lots of rain wouldn’t stop these festival attendees from sticking around in a wet, open field. Instead, guests cozied up and made new friends under the bright oranges umbrellas, the DJ played songs like Rihanna's "Umbrella" to keep the mood light and some brave souls even danced on the field. It was most certainly a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Wilson’s Words of Wisdom: December Round Up (Hidden bars in Los Angeles)

If there's anything I love more than a good cocktail, it's having to go through a top secret entrance in order to get it.

So for this monthly round up, I'm focusing on bars, speak easies, restaurants and lounges that don’t have typical entrances; you have to go through underground tunnels, hidden doors, the side of walls and other unusual — but super unique ways — just to get inside.

I won’t spoil the fun by giving away these seven places’ top-secret entrances, but I *will* highlight all of the reasons why you’d want to go through the trouble to check them out in the first place. Whether it’s showcasing alcohol from the 1900s or surprise musical performances, these places are providing great ambiance, great libations and of course, great ways to enter.

Are there any “hidden” gems that you adore (yes, pun intended)? Leave them in the comments section below! 

Old Lightning << no photo >>

Located within the swanky Scopa Italian Roots restaurant in Venice, Old Lightning is a comfy, mid-century modern lounge that serves up some of the oldest alcohols and most creative cocktails around. They have libations that have been around since 1906 and ones from every decade since. They also have a massive bible of cocktails that’s at least 40 pages thick, with hundreds upon hundreds of every type of drink you could imagine. Bar staff have suggested starting with a mood you’re in and then selecting a cocktail from one of the dozen categories that drinks are divided into. Or, you can also do makeshift tastings; name your price and liquor of choice — such as tequila or rum — and then get a round of tastings, based off the bartender’s preference. I did this once with whiskey and got Tennessee whiskeys from the ‘50s and ‘60s from distilleries that aren’t even around anymore! Old Lightning has a strict “no-photo” policy — hence the reason I don’t have an image up — and a very secret (but exciting!) way to get in that includes emails, checking in with multiple people and finally being guided into the actual space.

For more info

The Blind Barber

The Blind Barber in Culver City is a full-fledged barbershop, where a handful of barbers can shave, cut and trim you — all while offering a free beverage. But even though you may not need any hair services, you should still make a visit here — at least for the specialty cocktails and tasty grilled cheese sandwiches in the shop’s hidden bar / lounge. I’ll admit; it can be a little awkward just walking into the brightly lit shop space and having customers who are getting edged up stare at you as you walk past them to actually get to the lounge, but it’s still totally worth it! It’s in here that you can get 15 different grilled cheese sandwiches (pictured below) that are packed with artisanal ingredients like sautéed peppers and roasted jalapeños, and also gourmet cheeses, including smoked Gouda, Vermont white cheddar and manchego. I also love that there’s always at least one specialty cocktail that’s featured on the happy hour menu. Random fun fact #31: Dave Chappelle performed here earlier this year when he was in the city filming for his Netflix special, “The Age of Spin: Dave Chappelle Live at the Hollywood Palladium.”

For more info

Break Room 86

Photo from Break Room 86 website

Tons of Hollywood’s finest flock to The Line Hotel on Wilshire Blvd. in Koreatown for the Pot Bar Lobby, its trendy lounge, and Commissary, its rooftop restaurant. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a line wrapped around the block to enter the hotel’s main entrance on any given Friday or Saturday night. But what’s definitely not as crowded is the entrance to Break Room 86, an energetic, ‘80s-themed bar / lounge that plays a nonstop rotation of alternative, rock and pop music from the decade. Always packed, Break Room 86 has nostalgic relics from the era, such as arcade games and boom boxes. While I’ve only peeked in and never participated, they also have karaoke rooms, if that’s your thing. And, the most fun part of all in my humble opinion — aside, of course from how you get there in the first place — is that Break Room 86 has surprise guest performances throughout the night from some of our most beloved entertainers of the past. Last time I was there, I got to "meet" the King of Pop himself just before a performance.

For more info 

La Descarga

Photo from Houston Hospitality website

Located in the heart of Los Angeles, La Descarga is the self-proclaimed old Havana speakeasy of the city. It’s a hot, sultry Cuban-themed bar and lounge that's been on the block for quite a few years. After entering, you’re standing in a space that’s soaring with chandeliers hanging from high ceilings and with vintage seats and tables hugging velvety walls adorned with knick-knacks like old books and portraits (note: for guaranteed seating, you have to make advanced reservations). Lively Latin-influenced music streams throughout and on specified nights, there are even live music and dance performances (see below). Food isn't served here — only cocktails — and off to the side is a cigar lounge. Tip: there is a dress code, which prohibits t-shirts, caps, sneakers and other casual items for the fellas and encourages “cocktail dresses and heels” for the ladies, according to its website. La Descarga is ran by Houston Hospitality, a nightlife group that runs Break Room 86 mentioned above and a host of other L.A. bars, including Pour Vous, Harvard & Stone (another fave) and No Vacancy in Hollywood, which also has a very funky entrance.

For more info

Photo from Houston Hospitality website

Birds & Bees 

DTLA’s Birds & Bees has made an appearance on the #WilsonsGuide blog quite a few times earlier this year and I can't help but to mention it once again, as it most certainly deserves to be on this list. Once inside this underground lair, you’ll be transported into a bona fide 1950s drinking den, complete with servers dressed in attire from the decade. The cocktail program features potent drinks made with curious and unusual ingredients — like Chinese five-spiced cordials and masala-infused cognacs. Right now for the winter season, they’re whipping up the Danny Kaye — a take on the Manhattan, with coconut infused bourbon, sweet vermouth, Pedro Ximenez sherry, cynar and bitters. It also comes with a crispy coconut treat on the side.

For more info

The Varnish

Photo from The Varnish website 

The Varnish in DTLA was actually one of the first speakeasies I ever visited and eventually wrote about — seven years ago when I first launched this blog, and I'm delighted to see that it's still chugging along, all these years later. This tiny, one-room bar was once a storage room and now has some pretty cool features, including a dark, cozy atmosphere, live jazz on select nights and bartenders who are as knowledgeable after their craft cocktails as they are dapper and charming (and they’re pretty darn dapper and charming). Part of The Varnish’s allure is also where it’s located; it’s in Cole’s The Originators of the French Dip Sandwich, a historic sandwich shop that originally opened in 1908 and reopened in DTLA in 2008. There's nothing like grabbing the “French Dipped Sandwich” — thick slices of meat stuffed between a French roll and accompanied by savory au jus sauce — before throwing back a few drinks in The Varnish!

For more info

Laurel Hardware

Photo from Laurel Hardware website 

The first time I entered Laurel Hardware in West Hollywood, I did a double take. I wondered: was I even in the right place?? The hostesses kindly reassured me that I was and proceeded to take me through a decked out, decadent space that includes a bar area, indoor seating and a quaint outdoor patio. And whether it's indoor or outdoors, there's most certainly no bad seat in the house. The bar area gets packed and can be standing room only, but if you're lucky, snagging the chairs perched right next to the ceiling-to-floor glass wall offers great views of the patio. The patio itself has a ton of great options, too, under a canopy of lush, vibrantly green trees. The restaurant offers American classics for weekend brunch, happy hour and dinner. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed their seasonal cocktails; a few of the ones I recall trying during the spring were very colorful, light and refreshing, with a great taste.

For more info

Photo from Laurel Hardware website