At Employees Only L.A., Cocktails Are in the Food
One of Manhattan's most popular cocktail bars hits the West Coast with an expanded menu.
Employees Only, one of Manhattan’s most popular cocktail bars since its inception in 2004, is coming to Los Angeles. Set to open in March or April, this will be the bar’s fifth location, after Singapore, Miami, Hong Kong and Sydney.
“We’re not a franchise,” says co-founder Dushan Zaric, who’s overseeing the bar program. “We didn’t necessarily plan to go international first; it’s more that a concept like ours needs large markets. The concept is always locally appropriate—in Miami we have more topically appropriate drinks, and Hong Kong is more Chinese-influenced.”
To that note, the L.A. location is going to be twice the size of its New York original, featuring a wood-fired oven and expanded menu to leverage L.A.’s perennial produce bounty. It’ll all be overseen by chef Sascha Lyon, who previously worked in the Michelin-starred kitchens of Daniel, Pastis and Balthazar in New York.
“New York was stifling when it comes to produce because of the seasonality,” Lyon says. “Summers were robust, but when I moved to L.A. 11 years ago I was blown away that within five to ten miles in any direction, there are four to five farmers markets every single day of the week.”
And the fish markets here, too, are abundant—that wasn’t necessarily the case a decade ago. “It used to be that I could get fresher fish Fed-exed to me from New York than in Los Angeles. When fish comes out of the water, there are priorities to where it goes, and L.A. really fell way down on the list after N.Y. and Tokyo.”
That’s changing, he says—and sand dabs are one such Pacific fish making a comeback that he’s hoping to feature on the menu. (They’re a type of flounder, not too big, with a sweeter, delicate flake: a perfect specimen for the oven.)
“Most people think fire equals meat,” Lyon says, “It’s that primal ideology. For me it’s the opposite, it’s this delicate thing. When you can take something so precious—carrots, brussel sprouts, spot prawns—and expose it to extreme heat, you can coax something out of it that you never could get otherwise.” The oven is set to over at 900 to 1000 degrees, a touch hotter than required for a Neopolitan pizza.
There will also be the classic dishes carried over from New York, the tableside steak tartare and probably a roast chicken, this one sourced from Petaluma Poultry outside of San Francisco. “I’m thinking crispy skin, sweet peas, fava beans, chicken jus. There might be some truffle in it,” Lyon says.
The most compelling part of the dinner menu, however, is that it incorporates cocktails. “Bars and kitchens are typically autonomous,” he says, “but here we’re looking to pair food with cocktails. It’s not easy, because most food is designed to pair with wine.” And that’s a pretty standard feat—just whip up a white wine sauce with butter, lemon and capers, and you have yourself an obvious drink pairing.
“But how do you pair that dish with a drink that has smoke and maple, and all these intense flavors? I’m going to lean a lot more to floral and aromatic flavor profiles,” Lyon says. He’s thinking more beer than wine, heavy on the vermouth and splashes of apératifs in savory dishes. “That might look like, say, a shaken cocktail that becomes a broth for a crudo,” he says, with the server pouring it from the cocktail glass into the bowl right in front of you.
Cocktails, of course, have been the primary draw at Employees Only, which positions itself as a hidden entrance speakeasy concept—but Dushan Zaric doesn’t actually think their drinks are a differentiator. Despite his nearly three decades of bartending experience and a 2012 Forbes Top 50 Tastemakers award, “My negroni is not going to be different from the negroni down the street,” he says.
“It’s the service that makes us different. Acting too cool for school among bartenders is a lack of self-confidence,” he says. That’s always been the titular idea behind Employees Only: to serve as an after-hours refuge for service industry employees, and to treat everyone else with the same level of hospitality.
In 2016, Zaric came under fire for his response to an ad posted by Employees Only Singapore, which was accused of gender preferential hiring. In response, Zaric “wrote a post suggesting therapy for anyone who feels ‘that the world owes you anything,’” according to Eater. After further backlash, he stepped away from public facing roles at The 86 Company, a liquor business, although he remains founder and co-owner.
“Since then we have implemented significant changes because we evolve as a brand, just as we evolve as people,” Zaric tells Food & Wine. “We have women behind every bar in the world. My wife is the maitre d’, the bar manager is a woman, half of the employees are women.”
Zaric has also been heavily recognized as a bartending mentor in the industry, and won Tales of the Cocktail’s Best Bar Mentor in 2014.
If all goes as planned, Employees Only is set to open in L.A.’s West Hollywood neighborhood by April 2018.