A frosted door, etched "Est 1886," greets visitors who wind past a small, canopied patio behind Pasadena's Raymond restaurant. That door was not there 127 years ago. Nor was the patio. Nor the restaurant.
Instead, the year refers to the first incarnation of the famed Raymond Hotel, straddling the hilltop border of Pasadena and South Pasadena and luring wealthy visitors with warm hospitality and warmer winters. Those carefree days of orange-scented glamour are gone, but a little of it remains at Bar 1886, where a small cocktail oasis offers labor-intensive libations and a crowd more resembling the low-lighted haunts of downtown than the sleepy, suburban sidewalks of Pasadena.
Unlike many other cocktail bars in Los Angeles, there is a welcoming casualness to Bar 1886. There is no unsmiling doorman checking IDs, the diverse music selection shuffles through a well-stocked MP3 player and the restrooms have a homey air of comfort just short of a toothbrush next to the sink. "Cocktail aficionados go to a place because they love it," says consultant Marcos Tello, who helped with many elements, including the drink offerings and the decor at Bar 1886. "It's like hosting in a living room, and what better place to do it than a house?"
After the Raymond Hotel burned to the ground in 1895, owner Walter Raymond doubled down on the opulence and attracted the titans of industry with a rebuilt millionaire's playland. When the Great Depression struck, Raymond and his family went from a palace on the hill to the servant's quarters at the base. Forty years later, that house became the Raymond restaurant, and in November 2010 Bar 1886 was born.
Tello and partner Aidan Demarest formed their cocktail consultancy firm Liquid Assets in 2010 after building their reputation at such downtown-defining Los Angeles watering holes as Seven Grand and the Edison. "We always figured that we would do a program in the San Gabriel Valley," Tello says. "Only because so many patrons travel to have a drink downtown." Bar 1886 was not just their first venture in the area — it was their first consulting project anywhere.
With Congregation Ale House and a Stone Brewing Co. store recently joining a long list of Pasadena beer haunts, the City of Roses has solidified itself as a beer mecca, seemingly offering two taps for every patron the fire marshal would allow. Bar 1886, with its pressed-tin ceiling, narrow bar and sprawling cocktail list, is an anomaly in the area, challenging the city's sudsy reputation by instilling a respect for craftsmanship via the cocktail shaker and its limitless potential.
The bar has been able to draw a crowd of regulars largely because its cocktail list is expansive and ever-changing. In April, the Raymond closed for a three-week renovation of its kitchen, dimming the lights at Bar 1886 at the same time. When it reopened, it introduced its spring menu featuring 14 new cocktails and an array of small bar snacks.
Bartender Brady Weise, who has been behind the bar since it opened, has a strong presence on that list, most notably with its line of bottled cocktails. Weise's "Coke & a Smile" is a nod to South Pasadena's Fair Oaks Pharmacy — a soda fountain with a history of employing bartenders during Prohibition. The cocktail, served in a small Coke bottle, is a blend of rye, Fernet Menta, Galliano Ristretto, Coca-Cola and a whole, frothy egg. It has strong echoes of a phosphate soda, conjuring images of a humid Manhattan street corner with a dense and almost chocolaty richness. Along with three other house bottled cocktails this season, Weise and company are making a bid for not just taste but a memorable presentation befitting the impending summer heat.
"We see a whole crowd that is not used to these kinds of cocktails," Tello says. "We wanted the place to look like it dictated the cocktails. For people used to Pasadena, this is a part of it. Locals are very comfortable here."
Wedged between the Gold Line tracks and the end of the Pasadena Parkway, Bar 1886 is not the easiest drinking destination to find. Nonetheless, on a Thursday evening, it's a curious mix of nattily dressed professionals and homebound hockey fans in jerseys and flip-flops crowding the bar. They all share patience and an appreciation for a well-made cocktail, commandeering the restaurant's seating area when the 24 seats in the bar area are all snugly occupied.
Clearly, the gamble has paid off and people are flocking to the cozy space, implying there's an audience for high-end cocktails in the San Gabriel Valley too. If Walter Raymond could have seen what has become of his old home, maybe he would try to rebuild the hotel one more time.