Mark Peel had a twinkle in his eye when he said, “you want to see the wine cellar?” It was a couple hours into the press preview of his new venture, The Tar Pit, at 609 N. LaBrea. Wine cellars in nice new restaurants are usually classy, with custom-built racks filled with tasty wines you and I will never get to taste. If you had a down vest and a corkscrew, it wouldn’t be too bad to be “accidentally” locked in one overnight. Hence Peel’s twinkle. Ten steps down the hallway, he opens a room that looks like a closet, except for the utilitarian racks on both sides, with room only for a ladder and a mischievous chef.
The tiny wine cellar reflects the philosophy of The Tar Pit. They’re only serving 27 wines -- 12 whites, 13 reds, and two sparklings -- and all bottles cost $38. Peel says in most restaurants, people pick wine from the list by going down the right-hand column, checking the prices. “We take that out of the equation.” So there won’t be any Screaming Eagle or Two Buck Chuck. Instead, the list goes for interesting, like a 2005 Oremus from Hungary … “resurrected after the fall of the Iron Curtain…” and a 2004 Slovenian from Ivan Batic, “the madman of … the Vipava Valley.”
Peel is the owner and executive chef of Campanile, one of LA’s better restaurants. For The Tar Pit, he’s partnering with Audrey Saunders, a drinks specialist who owns Pegu Club in New York, managing partner Jay Perrin, and the wine director of Campanile, Taylor Parsons.
As Peel told Los Angeles Magazine’s Lesley Bargar, the inspiration for The Tar Pit comes from the 1936 movie “My Man Godfrey:” “At the very end, they’re in this fabulous bar owned by William Powell’s character, Godfrey, and it’s called The Dump because it was built right on top of the dump where they found him.” The Tar Pit is also not a dump. It’s all beige, brown, and black, with hints of Coconut Grove and Art Deco, and comfortable chairs, booths, and banquettes, subdued lighting, etc. The guy with the beard and the plaid shirt looked out of place; it won’t kill you to throw on a sports coat or a cute black dress.
The drinks are expensive ($11-$16) but tasty, like this Jamaican Firefly, made with rum, housemade ginger beer, lime juice, and simple syrup...
… and a Fitty-Fitty martini: one part Plymouth dry gin to one part Dolin dry vermouth, with orange bitters and lemon essence, stirred by Matt Goodyear -- born in Philly, trained in Miami -- 37.5 times.
The bar mirrors the wine list. It’s stocked with good solid booze – Wild Turkey, Bombay Dry, etc -- but from what I could tell, no extremely high-end stuff. Anyway, the key to deliciousness is fresh fruit juices, good syrups, nice bitters, and good ice. For some drinks, the bartenders use huge clear cubes generated in an icemaker that Peel says uses a sort of subwoofer to vibrate the bubbles out of the reverse-osmosis water.
Saunders’ drink menu includes three “Tributes” to other bartenders and mixologists, like Robert Hess’s “Trident,” with aquavit, fino sherry, Cynar (artichoke) aperitif, citrus bitters, and lemon essence. It’s a nice starter drink, or better yet, a perfect after-dinner stomach settler.
Peel’s menu is a riff on 1940s classics. So the then-ubiquitous pickled hand-boiled eggs become deviled eggs, but the whites get brined so they have something to do besides hold up the yolk. He’s also making steak and kidney pie, lobster and scallop Newberg, and escargot – except he’s shaving the escargot so they don’t get rubbery.
Prices on the bar menu run $6 to $12, and on the dining menu, nothing costs more than $17.
There’s been a lot of buzz about The Tar Pit, which opens tonight. I’d guess it’ll attract the same kind of crowd as Little Dom’s in Los Feliz -- a 20s to 40s set that wants tasty food and doesn’t want to pay too much for it, and tasty drinks and don’t mind paying about five times as much as if you did your own mixing at home, watched “My Man Godfrey” on TCM, and cried softly in your loneliness. Better to get out and blow a few bucks and feel glamorous, like these handsome dudes.
Photos: John Rabe and Julian Bermudez.