The naked woman. It’s where your eyes go, invariably. The walls in Villains Tavern are covered in hundreds of doodads representing layers of use and age, from old ribbons which once held medals, to a mirror with an imprint of a devil on it topped with a deer head, to a collection of liquor and medicine and perfume bottles in every size and color, all anchored down the middle by a pair of crystal chandeliers. I stood in the empty tavern in the late afternoon looking up at these walls, and I couldn’t avert my gaze from the painting of the nude woman. She looks back at you—unfazed, unapologetic and without the slightest inclination toward modesty. And that seems to be the spirit of this whole place—the wall of whiskey bottles, the line of beer taps across the bar, the awning above the open-air patio flapping in the breeze, the tuning of a distant guitar. This place is wholly unapologetic about what it is: an Old West saloon transported forward through time and plopped down in the middle of the Los Angeles Arts District.
In the calm before the first evening rush the air is thick with steam from dishwashers churning in the back, and cold blue light from outside struggles against gold light from the chandeliers before inevitably fading away. I was here to meet a fellow named “Gunsmoke.” The head bartender here gets both his nickname and proper name from a minor villain in the old Western TV show Gunsmoke—a character named Trafton, who robs a church and shoots a priest, only to have the priest forgive him as he lays dying, an act which upends Trafton’s world and prompts him to seek atonement from those he’s wronged. He only appears in one episode.
½ oz. Lime Juice
½ oz. Pineapple Juice
½ oz. Ginger Syrup
¾ oz. Strawberry Fennel Syrup
1 oz. Beefeater 24 Gin
1 ½ oz. Pimm’s
Pinch of Mint
2 oz. Soda Water
Directions: Build in shaker, shake. Top with soda water, sprig of mint, lime wheel. Pour in Collins glass
Trafton Barney is Western deep down in his bones—moustache, suspenders and a quiet focus on actions, not words, that gets things done. He seems right at home behind the bar, almost relishing the intricate order of movements and ingredients that go into his signature drinks. When I asked him to make me a drink, he made a Fer-De-Lance—a summery, refreshing drink starring Pimm’s and Beefeater 24 gin, along with notes of citrus and ginger (also, coincidentally, the name of a deeply poisonous pit viper native to the island of Martinique). It seems that, no matter where you look, there is an awareness of the sentiment behind the name of this place—the “villain” in Villains Tavern, even as day turns into night and crowds gather to enjoy a drink to the riff of a guitar.
How did you come to Villains Tavern?
I moved to L.A. in August 2011. I was living in Venice and started the job hunt in that area, because that would make more sense. And nobody was biting, so my radius kept getting bigger and bigger, and I went to this big cattle call interview at the Gypsy. There were something like 300 applicants; it was ridiculous. I left and was like, “Well, I’ve been to a million of these—it’s probably not going to happen.” But then I ended up getting a job down the street at Far Bar in Little Tokyo.
So I started there, but I kept popping into the One Eyed Gypsy, just showing my face. About a month later some guy flaked, and I’d happened to become friends with the manager at the time. I was getting off at Far Bar and he said, “I need a body in here,” so I was like, “Alright.” And that was basically how it started there. It was the same owner as here, but I didn’t come over [to Villains Tavern] until May 2013, and I took the position I’m in now (head bartender) a year ago in March. I kind of learned along the way. I had a bunch of bartending experience, but not at this capacity. It was like “Hey, wait a minute! There’s a lot more to the world than Red Bull and vodka and pre-made margaritas.”
There has been a big shift, and L.A. has been a part of that. Back in the day, you got Jaeger Bombs, rum and Coke, giant martini glasses filled to the brim with bad tiki mix and an ounce of shit tequila. But there’s been this development of an appreciation for cocktails in more of a classic sense, but it caters to modern tastes. And I feel like the cocktails you’re working on are a part of this.
L.A. has always been a party town. We didn’t care about our cocktails 10 years ago. New York and San Francisco did, but then something clicked and it happened here. L.A. has made up for lost time. We’ll always be behind New York and San Francisco, not necessarily in what we’re doing; they just had a 150-year head start. In just the past two years cocktail culture has grown exponentially.
In the long run, the shift is good for everybody. It’s like knowing where to get finer food. It’s funny; you can see the shifts. We have a drink on the menu that’s been on the menu for a while. It’s a great one and it’s always been popular, but it has egg whites in it. And for a long time, it was just every day, constant, “Eww, egg whites? Why?” I’ve never made more of that cocktail than I have in the past month. It’s like the shift finally happened and people recognized that an egg white is not a weird thing in a drink.
What’s the drink called?
The Stan Lee. It’s a hibiscus and jasmine tea-infused gin with lemongrass, orange bitters and egg white. On the original cocktail list here, most of the drinks were named after some sort of villain in movies or comics.
What’s your process when you’re working on a new drink?
With the new spring cocktail menu, we wanted to do a tour of the world. So we brought in a drink with a Japanese whiskey, something with a shrub of champagne vinegar and lavender that is more on the French side, Creole mescal, and a bunch of fusion stuff. And also spring ingredients that are light; something you could drink on a hot day. With that as your starting point, it depends on what your end goal is. And you brainstorm, and go from there. Maybe I work backwards. I don’t know for sure.
We have this drink with reposado tequila and mescal. It uses Memphis Barbeque Bitters. It’s really spicy and delicious, but it tastes like a spicy dry rub. We had a bottle of that in Far Bar three years ago. At the time I had no clue what to do with it. I was like, “That’s crazy. Somebody made barbeque bitters.” In the drink, there’s the basil and the smokiness of the mezcal. It just works. It’s called the Rendezvous, which is the name of my favorite rib joint in Memphis. It’s been there forever. All the waiters are in their 50s, 60s or 70s and have an attitude.
Do you have a favorite drink on the menu?
The Fer-De-Lance is probably my favorite right now. As far as springtime goes, it’s the one that sticks out.
Fer De Lance is a type of poisonous snake, but it’s also the name of this made-for-TV movie in the 70s that I owned as a child. Growing up out in the middle of nowhere, we had no cable, just tons of movies on VHS. In Fer De Lance, some guy sneaks a bag of poisonous snakes onto a submarine. Obviously, the snakes get out and people start dying. It’s really, really bad. I watched it all the time when I was eight.
When you go to another bar you’ve never been to before, what do you order?
Typically if I’ve never been there before, I’ll get a beer of some sort—usually some kind of light beer like a pilsner and a shot of fernet. Then I’ll sit there and take it all in and determine if I want to order a cocktail or not. I’ll look at the menu, watch the bartenders, and, not to be a snob about it, but there are some bars that are great, but I wouldn’t order a cocktail there. Some bars, I will.
A lot of people come to Villains Tavern to enjoy a drink while taking in some live music in an open-air venue. How do you achieve that perfect atmosphere that people don’t want to miss out on?
Short answer: it takes a little bit of luck. But I think the way it works with this venue is all the bands we have here are fantastic, and a little on the different side—eclectic, if you’d use that word. I see live shows all the time, but instead of just going to see some band play and then grabbing a beer and leaving, it’s more of just part of what this place is. It’s just as much about the bands on stage entertaining as much as it is about the patio out there with the lights and fire pit. Also, if you don’t want to see the bands, there are other places to go. You’re not sitting at the bar having the band blast you, and it’s all you can focus on. You can choose. You can go, “This band’s really good. I’m going to sit on the patio and watch them,” or you can come up here, or hang out down there—whatever you like. It’s a bit of everything for everybody.
What is Villains Tavern to you?
I’ve been tied into this place since I moved here and tried to find my niche in this town. You move here, and you don’t know anybody, and it can be a little daunting. It’s like that with any city, but L.A. goes on forever. This place, these people, I’ve always been connected to them—when we were at Gypsy and when we were here. We all hang out and we’re good friends. And in all that, I’ve always been either in my apartment or here. Not to get too sentimental, but it’s like a second home in L.A. I might spend more time here than I do in my actual apartment. We have a pretty eclectic crowd here: young, old, this style and the other. Everyone likes a good cocktail and good music. It’s somewhere you never feel out of place.
1356 Palmetto St, Los Angeles, CA 90013