When it comes to cocktails at DISTRICT inside the elegant Sheraton Grand Los Angeles, the drinks are more than aperitifs, digestifs or even accompaniments to a guest’s meal — they’re often the centerpiece.
Mixologist Tony Gonzales, a downtown Los Angeles resident himself, has gone beyond your typical bar menu, raising DISTRICT’s cocktail list to such a level that it’s become the main draw for many locals and hotel guests dining at the restaurant.
DISTRICT’s cocktail menu is extensive, counting a whopping 20 cocktails in all, with others filed away in the bar’s Rolodex, ready to be changed out at any moment.
There are riffs on classic and signature cocktails, whether they follow a theme or season. The Old-Fashioned is the most-ordered cocktail here, but Gonzales makes sure it’s no ordinary version — the final product is smoked in house.
We sat down with Tony to talk about how he successfully exceeds customers’ expectations, from the ordinary to the innovative.
You’re located in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, which is going through a transformation. How do you keep guests intrigued by DISTRICT?
Our clientele is really cool because it’s a mix between downtown L.A. locals and hotel guests. Guests often ask us where a good local bar is, and I tell them, “You’re in it! You’re in a really good downtown L.A. bar right now.” We’ve been on the front page of the local downtown newspaper a couple times now.
The bar is a great place to launch [hotel guests] into the city. Sometimes they venture out to other bars; then they come back and tell us, “You have raised the bar too much. Why would we even go out to the local bars when we have an awesome bar right here?”
How do you go beyond expectations with your guests? What separates you from the crowd?
I like surprising people. I like the unusual. I like it when people say, “Wow, I have never seen that before.” That’s my favorite thing to hear from a guest, and they thankfully say it all the time.
I have so many random tools on the bar top. People ask me, “What’s that thing?” or “What’s that [tool]?” I don’t like blending in with any other bar; I like to stand out.
What are some of your more unusual tools?
A homemade smoke chamber. We use the old Boston shaker lid, turn it upside down and make it into a fire pit. And then we burn the wood and put it inside the display dish.
We bought a little electric fan contraption that has an intake and outtake, and we have the shaker lid that we put on top of the intake and then it fills the chamber with smoke. It’s a homemade thing, although a lot of people ask where they can buy it.
We also make our own ice with an ice-box well to make crystal-clear blocks of ice. We fill it up with tap water from the gun, put it in the freezer and the next day we get crystal-clear ice, which we use for the Opium or single malt scotch pours.
Another tool have is a snowmaker or an ice shaver. We can make snow cones behind the bar if we want to. We also have a siphon coffeemaker, but we use it for quick extractions. It’s got a bunsen burner and a bowl within another bowl.
And every bartender has a blow torch. I was known in downtown for starting the blow torch thing; I have a holster with the blow torch in it that hangs off my hip. And when it’s needed, whether it’s fire, bruleeing, caramelizing, I have the blow torch ready on my hip.
I get a lot of people wondering, “What the heck is that thing?”
While your top-selling drink is the Old-Fashioned, there’s an original — and award-winning — cocktail called the Opium. Tell us about how it came about.
It’s a massive collaboration. My boss, actually, he came up with the initial concept of it. We were in the office and talking about medicine vials and how cool it’d be to have something like that on the menu. A coworker did the original batch and then he handed it to me to balance it out and make it sellable.
When it comes to cocktails, it’s never one person’s recipe. Two minds are better than one.
And three palates are better than one palate.
Exactly. You always bounce things off of other people so that you know you’re not tailoring it to just your own taste. [The Opium] is a complicated drink, but we have it down to a science now as far as how we can serve it by batching it, and it looks amazing.
It’s got a little bit of a tartness from grapefruit (pamplemousse) and then you get sweetness from riesling and then herbal notes with the East Bombay gin. Just a little bit of bitter with the Campari and then you cut it with lemon.
The rosewater finish and rose petals make it look pretty and smell like roses when it comes to you. And then the guest pours the vial over the ice cube when they get it.
Your menu is so whimsical!
I would say it’s very whimsical. I love it because the goal this year was to make drinks that are social media worthy. They taste good already, but I focused on the quality of the presentation of it. If you go on our Instagram, you’ll see tons of pictures of the drinks. It’s about 60 percent drinks and 40 percent food.
Where do you see DISTRICT fitting into the downtown L.A. cocktail scene?
As far as downtown goes, you’re going to get two kinds of bars. Bars that are serving normal drinks like Jack and Coke and other cocktails that may or may not be the best, but a guide.
Then you’ll get bars that are constantly changing their drinks that are really into the craft scene and into the mixology world. Then they end up not lasting that long. The business doesn’t help sustain their creativity.
I feel like we have both worlds. We have a Moscow Mule that’s on tap. And that’s our lowest common denominator. But at the same time, we’ll serve Jack and Cokes and gin and tonics and not bat an eye.