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A good theme isn’t a requisite for a standout cocktail menu, but it definitely makes cocktail hour more fun. Case in point: the new California road trip–inspired menu at Los Angeles’ Big Bar, a 13-year-old neighborhood bar nestled beneath the iconic Griffith Observatory. “I get the most excited for a cocktail that tastes great and has a narrative layer,” says longtime bar manager Eugene Lee. “Even better, when it connects to a bigger picture/theme.”

For the Los Feliz neighborhood bar’s spring/summer menu, the bar team sought to create 12 drinks inspired by their travels across the Golden State. And they went the distance to make them both evocative and transportive in their theme, like topping a Gold Rush variation with “honey fog” for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

Destination Inspiration

Some of the cocktails on Big Bar’s spring menu represent a personal journey. Bartender Kathleen Garcia’s Everything Whale Be Alright spritz symbolizes her “love of Monterey Bay and the numerous road trips she’d taken there growing up with her mother and sister, then, later in life with her boyfriend,” says Lee. Garcia’s recipe combines the region’s flora—almonds, artichoke, and elderberries—with Gray Whale Gin, a small-batch spirit made with botanicals from areas along the gray whale’s migratory path.

Bartender Julia Depp aimed to spotlight plant life in and around the caves of her favorite California attraction, Lava Beds National Monument. The cocktail, called the Flora Volcanica—made with two types of whiskey, genepy, manzanilla sherry—evokes not only of the volcanic landscape but the flavors of the shrubs growing from it. “I wanted to make something that tasted deep and rich while still tasting light and herbal,” she says.

And with her Abducted Cow Margarita, Shannon Murphy captures the idea of roadside attractions. Many Southern Californians who’ve made the trek to Vegas have stopped at the oddly themed Alien Fresh Jerky stand off Interstate 15 in Baker, California, for a midpoint snack. Murphy pulled the flavor profile for her cocktail from the brand’s Abducted Cow pineapple and teriyaki jerky, creating an umami pineapple gomme (with fenugreek, sage, cumin, and bay leaf) and mixing it with mezcal. “The result is a savory/tropical margarita for summer, garnished with a bendable alien holding some tasty jerky,” says Lee.

Going the Extra Mile

What ties this California road trip theme together and takes it to the next level is the menu’s graphic design by Dave Stolte of Wexler of California, which has created menus for Smuggler’s Cove, Palm Springs’ Truss & Twine, and Disneyland’s exclusive bar 21 Royal. Designed to resemble a spiral-bound Thomas Guide—the atlas that people relied on before smartphones—Big Bar’s menu comes complete with a pull-out state map and a MapQuest-like printout for beer, wine, and NA options.

This isn’t the first time Big Bar has gone all-in on a theme. One of Lee’s favorites was the 2019 Game of Thrones menu created in honor of the series’ final season. “We released a limited-run menu (while the show was on air) and featured some classic GoT moments, like Lancel Too Late, The Night King, the Imp’s Delight,” Lee says. “The menu itself was a raven holding a cloth scroll with an ironed-on cocktail list, complete with burnt edges—4th-grade Eugene was very pleased.”

Down the Road

Lee attributes Big Bar’s continued creativity to the staff, some of whom have been with the bar for a decade. “I think all of this contributes to operating at a level that is loose enough to be collaborative/creative but tight enough that it’s not just all dreaming, no execution,” he says.

Now that the spring/summer menu has launched, the Big Bar team has set their sights on the next menu, which is slated to launch in five months. “I think the fall/winter menu needs to meet the moment,” says Lee. “It’s going to be a tense time with the election around corner … people will want some respite.” But he adds, “I can tell you this: It will be fantastic.”

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