Barfly: The Association
We grew up loving treasure maps because they present two things we are intrinsically enthralled with: the promise of a privileged wealth all to ourselves, and the promise of adventure attempting to obtain it. For a grown-up treasure hunt that satisfies your fundamental need for both, The Association marks the spot.
Buried within the concrete jungle of LA's business district, this literally underground social target tops the list for those who dig the downtown scene – if you can find it. Unlike its boisterous competitors, there are no glaring neon lights to direct you to its location. There are no billboards. There is no telling velvet rope. As co-owner McCray Miller puts it, "There is no face of the bar. It just is what it is, and that's what's special about it: You kind of have to know to know. "
But once you know, it's evident how a bar with such little advertising has such a prominent reputation. The entrance is a single black door, located under 6th Street, and adorned only with a large lion head knocker ("a little tip of the hat" that Miller claims is an exact replica of the door used by London's Prime Minister). The bar opens into a surprisingly spacious lounge scene, filled with sprawling leather couches and bathed in just a hint of amber glowing light. It is, in a word, subtle.
What this bar lacks in noisy mobs and blinding lights, it compensates with absolutely splendid service, and this where The Association earns is lauded reputation. The personable bartenders don't merely pour your drink, they orchestrate a ceremony for your preferred poison – narrating as they perform – explaining the importance of the ingredients and revealing the often-colorful histories behind your favorite cocktails. After being presented with a delightfully intricate French 75 (and a encyclopedia-like explanation this gin-and-champagne drink's origins), bartender Nick Vitulli added, "Yeah, when you know the story, it doesn't look so girly does it?"
But the entertainment is no substitute for execution, as all the drinks I tried proved incredibly well-constructed – not to mention affordable. In fact, the bar offers "Social Hour" from five to nine, Monday through Friday, and includes a complete five-dollar cocktail menu. All of this affordable indulgence in an exclusive downtown bar that actually had available seats, a sophisticated food menu, and gushing with speakeasy-esque class? This hidden treasure is most certainly worth the hunt.