How You Run One of the Busiest Bars in L.A.
At L.A. hotspot Bestia, Iluggy Recinos manages to put out fresh works of mixology faster than most nightclubs can pour a vodka Red Bull.
It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, and Bestia’s Iluggy Recinos is ready for things to get nuts behind the bar. This is nothing new. Recinos, who was recently promoted to bar manager at the perpetually busy restaurant in downtown L.A.’s Arts District, has been here from the start. He was hired as a server prior to Bestia opening in November 2012 and he quickly became a bar back and then a bartender.
Now he’s in charge of the bar at a restaurant that regularly seats 500 guests a night, where he comes in at 11 a.m. even though service doesn’t start until 5 p.m. He shows up that early because he and his crew need to cut ice, prep herbs, finish syrups and make sure everything is where it needs to be. (And the other night, he posted an Instagram story when he was doing inventory at 4:14 a.m.)
“If I miss one step, I’m fucked,” Recinos says. “This place is going to get packed. You can fill the crushed ice, but if the garnishes aren’t ready to cut, if you don’t have the mise en place, you’re done. Every minute, you’re getting an order.”
So if an order for 10 whiskey sours comes in and it’s only then that you realize you didn’t bottle the egg whites you got from the kitchen, you have a disaster on your hands.
What adds to the challenge is that Bestia isn’t just making traditional cocktails. There are elaborate and original concoctions not unlike what you’ll find at eight-seat bars that take nine minutes to make one drink.
Recinos says he often thinks about what it might be like to work at one of those more relaxed bars.
Life would be a lot simpler, but then again: “I wouldn’t be the best at those eight-seat bars because I’m super ADHD,” Recinos says. “I would get distracted. I wouldn’t focus. But if I’m in the zone at Bestia, I’m going to execute 100 percent.”
When Recinos is in the zone, he’s hyper-aware of everything. He’s got a bartender mainly handling orders from the dining room. He’s got another bartender largely dealing with the big crowd that came to hang out at the bar or is just waiting an hour or more for tables. Recinos is in the middle, working as the utility bartender, figuring out how to split up big orders, making sure his bartenders and his two bar backs are being as efficient as possible.
He’ll take a moment or two for quick conversations with guests who wonder why there isn’t any Grey Goose or Johnnie Walker Black. He’ll explain that he can’t make a Jack and Coke, because Bestia doesn’t carry Jack. But Recinos always has a good alternative. There was a couple who came by last night and wanted Long Island Iced Teas. The bar made them great Zombies instead, and the couple left happy.
If Recinos has a rare spare moment, he might explain to guests why he loves working with local spirits. He’s got strawberry brandy from Ventura Spirits that he uses in his new Strawberry Feels cocktail. He thinks The Spirit Guild makes great clementine gin. He’s impressed by Loft and Bear vodka.
“We like to support the little guys very much,” Recinos says.
Bestia, after all, was a scrappy upstart in a rough-around-the-edges neighborhood back in 2012. It’s the first restaurant run by chef Ori Menashe, who became a Food & Wine best new chef in 2015.
Recinos was working at downtown L.A.’s wildly popular Bottega Louie when he found out Bestia was hiring.
“Who the fuck is Ori?” Recinos remembers thinking. “I don’t know this guy.”
But Recinos heard that famed mixologist Julian Cox was working on Bestia’s cocktail menu, so he knew he could learn something there. At Bottega Louie, Recinos mostly worked as a waiter, but he had a day shift making drinks.
“I didn’t even like drinking,” he recalls. “I would just drink a beer here and there.”
But then he tasted proper versions of a Manhattan, Daiquiri and Margarita at Bottega Louie. He learned about blocks of ice and stirring cocktails and beautiful coupe glasses and started trying drinks around the city.
So after studying up on bartending at home and asking all the questions he could while polishing glasses at Bottega Louie, Recinos went to Portland Cocktail Week in 2012 with a sense of purpose.
“I got back and I was like, ‘Fuck waiting tables, man,’” he says. “I love making cocktails. I love the freshness of it, how people are so passionate.”
But when Recinos showed up to interview at Bestia, the only job available for him was as a server. Undeterred, he took the gig and kept learning about cocktails every moment he could. Once he started as a bar back, he would come in early and also close down the bar. He soon found his place making drinks behind one of the busiest bars in L.A.
“It’s the rush, man,” Recinos says. “The rush is what keeps us going. When we’re challenged is when we’re the best behind the bar. We’re deep, we’re sweating, we’re dying.”
It’s about five minutes before Bestia opens when Recinos tells me that the key to his success is consistency. It’s about ensuring that people get the same quality of service, night after night, year after year.
All of a sudden, Bestia gets really loud as employees start clapping and assistant general manager Steven Leselrod gathers the floor staff for a pep talk straight out of an NFL locker room.
Leselrod talks about a new server who needs every single person on the floor’s confidence and support. Especially considering the anticipated crowd.
“Tonight is going to be a madhouse,” he says. “We are not going to stray away from what we always do. We are going to bring it every fucking hour, every goddamn day.”
The point is coming together as a team, doing things to make your customers happy and to make yourself proud. The point is taking a restaurant at the peak of its powers to an even higher level, making Bestia a better place at the end of service than it was at the beginning. The point is getting out of your comfort zone and finding new ways to help your colleagues. The point is being able to know that when you take a day off and come back, you can marvel at how things have improved in that one day. (“You’re going to say, ‘Holy shit, this place is fucking alive.’”) The point is bringing all the energy you have. And: “If you don’t believe it, tonight you fucking will.”
After the speech ends and the servers bring in their hands and scream “Bestia,” Recinos turns to me.
“That’s the motivation for what’s to come right now,” he says. “You’re going to see them flood the floor. I’m ready. I feel great.”
It’s 5 p.m., the speakers start blaring music, and there’s a line of people at the host stand ready to have a great evening. It’s time to start making drinks. It’s time to get in the zone.