I first heard about Mandrake, Culver City’s newish bar, from CalendarLive. It sounded pretty cool; and a new bar in burgeoning Culver City is always a good thing. Located in the dodgy end of La Cienega near a bunch of art galleries, the bar was easy to overlook, nevermind the small neon sign out front that read “BAR.” Keep your eyes peeled and your Google map printout handy when scouting it out. Just sayin’.
The fripperies of Hollywood’s velvet-roped attractions are absent here, and on most nights patrons attired like extras in a Wes Anderson movie repair to the rear patio to suck on cigarettes and discuss the state of contemporary art.
On a weekend night before 9pm, we were able to find parking right out front. No meters or valet for this low-key drinking hole. I had no idea just how low-key and sparse it was until I walked in to find it a step above my wet bar at home and a step below a dive bar. I figured there would be wall-to-wall bohemian crowd and artwork considering that it’s owned by gallery owners and arty types.
The front bar area was simply the standard long bar with stools lining the counter and low, uncomfortable seats along the walls. The adjacent room simply contained turntables, a large projection of some video on the wall and a goldfish bowl. This open space, free of tables and chairs, could easily be mistaken for the dance floor if it weren’t for the big “No dancing” sign over the turntables. Apparently Mandrake doesn’t have the license for that. Just as well since I wasn’t all that crazy about the music anyway. I oohed just once and danced in my chair when they played Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” After that, I couldn’t tell you what was on the sound system. Instead this empty room is dedicated to readings and art showings.
My friends and I took up a corner of the bar, perched on our backless bar stools and contemplated the drink menu of old-school cocktails hanging above the bar. It was kinda refreshing to step away from the specialty cocktails de rigeur of today’s bars and just return to the classics. But having said that…. “What’s a Side Car? What’s a Moscow Mule? What’s a Negroni?” The bartenders patiently answered our questions without a trace of attitude. But much to my chagrin, I didn’t find any of those drinks appetizing after hearing what they were made of. I settled on the rummy Dark & Stormy since it seemed to be the sweetest of the bunch.
Unfortunately it turned out to not be as tasty as I had anticipated or strong for that matter. Because of that I required a Jameson neat ($6.50) in the next round to achieve sufficient warm fuzziness.
Eventually as the night wore on, the crowd grew from the original seven to 15, or some manageable number like that where you can still cut through the crowd and there isn’t a line for the single stall ladies’ room.
We considered getting something to eat but weren’t turned on by anything on the tapas menu. It didn’t help to see the bartenders prepare the food behind the bar, slicing up cucumbers and preparing dolmas before our eyes. I’m sure it was fine. The place got an “A” grade for food, but, uh, we just wanted something more substantial. So hunger compelled us to seek sustenance elsewhere.
Regardless of all of the above, I appreciated the Mandrake. I liked its hole-in-the-wallness, like it was a secret place and not in an exclusionary way but in an overlooked way. It reminded me of a bar you’d find in Silver Lake. And yet, nothing about it is compelling enough to entice me to return. I can see hitting it after an art showing nearby, but honestly when am I going to do that?
_2692 S. La Cienega Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90034
Cross Street: Venice Boulevard