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11 Great California Bars in Movies

Have your happy hour in a café, cantina, or lounge that starred in a famous film

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Posted 3 years agoby Katrina Hunt

The Oscar-nominated Lady Bird is, in many ways, a love letter to California’s capital city, featuring a long list of locations in Sacramento. One brief but memorable cameo went to Club Raven, a beloved dive bar locals call “The Dirty Bird.” Though Saoirse Ronan’s character never goes inside the bar (after all, she’s only turning 18 in the film), plenty of classic movies have used real-life bars and lounges for pivotal scenes. Here’s how you can raise a glass to some past Oscar winners and other great movies in real-life watering holes across the Golden State, listed from the Bay Area down to San Diego:

1. The Tides Wharf & Restaurant, Bodega Bay
The Birds

This pleasant spot on the Sonoma coast is great for cocktails, seafood, and water views. Better yet, it doesn’t feel the least bit threatening despite playing a small role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller. (The owner supposedly gave the director permission to film there in exchange for a small speaking role.) Come on Saturday nights for the piano bar, or check for the regular crab feeds and winemaker dinners.

2. Tosca Café, San Francisco
Basic Instinct

This San Francisco institution (pictured above) has nearly a century’s worth of history, but it’s also the spot where Michael Douglas’ character fell off the wagon in the 1992 thriller also starring Sharon Stone. The line between caffeinated drink and cocktail admittedly gets blurry here: today’s signature “House Cappuccino 1919,” first concocted during Prohibition, includes Armagnac, bourbon, and Dandelion chocolate ganache. Another Hollywood connection: When Tosca Cafe nearly closed in 2013, regular patron Sean Penn reportedly played a part in keeping it alive.

3. The Hitching Post II, Buellton
Sideways

Movie fans know this place in Santa Barbara County as one of the main spots where Paul Giamatti’s wine-snob character disses Merlot. But barbecue lovers flock here for some of the best Santa Maria-style barbecue on the planet. This cuisine pairs well with any red—and Hitching Post is also a winery, so you should be covered. The wine list features 10 Pinot Noirs, two Syrahs, and one House Red that is a blend of Cabernet Franc and (ahem) Merlot.

4. The Smoke House, Burbank
La La Land and Argo
Located next to Warner Bros. Studios, this Burbank hotspot has been around since 1946 and may have the most Best Picture nominee associations: It is featured in both 2017 nominee La La Land (it's where Ryan Gosling’s piano-playing character gets fired) and 2013 Best Picture winner Argo (where Ben Affleck and John Goodman concoct their fake-movie rescue plan). But the Smoke House has long had Hollywood clout as a hangout for insiders ranging from Bob Hope and Judy Garland to longtime regular George Clooney. The restaurant is known for its traditional menu items like cheese-garlic bread, New York strip, and Shrimp Louie, but its downright reasonable happy hour menu proves that you don’t need an A-lister budget to enjoy the place.

5. The Dresden, Los Angeles
Swingers
Much of this 1996 movie about 20-something single guys, starring Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, takes places in bars and coffee shops, such as The Three Clubs and The 101 Coffee Shop. But perhaps the best cameo is played by The Dresden, the longtime Los Feliz neighborhood bar where the guys listen to the house act, Marty & Elayne, cover “Staying Alive.” As proof that some things happily stay the same,  Marty & Elayne are still killin’ it Tuesdays through Saturdays in The Dresden’s lounge. While you listen, browse the inimitable cocktail list, including Don’t Rye, Fernet About It and the 60-years-and-counting house cocktail, The Dresden Blood & Sand—made with scotch, OJ, and cherry liqueur, and named after a 1922 film starring Rudolph Valentino and Rita Hayworth.

6. Formosa Café, West Hollywood
L.A. Confidential
 
Located in West Hollywood near the old United Artists lot, the Formosa (above) first opened in 1939 and has attracted patrons from Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe to Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt. A movie star is even hanging out there in 1997’s L.A. Confidential, when the characters played by Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce get a drink thrown in their faces by a fictionalized Lana Turner. Today’s happy hour is a harmonious blend of old and new, with Mai Tais, Mules, kale salads, and pork-belly satays.

7. The Prince, L.A.’s Koreatown
Chinatown

In the 1974 classic, characters played by Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson met for drinks at this longtime Koreatown bar and restaurant. (It was a stand-in for another landmark spot, The Brown Derby). This 1920s institution has also played cameos in a variety of TV series—including a few highball-clinking episodes of Mad Men. Today, those banquette booths are an inviting spot to try the Prince’s acclaimed Korean-style fried chicken.

8. Cicada Restaurant & Club, Downtown Los Angeles
Pretty Woman

Housed in an impressive 1928 Art Deco building in downtown Los Angeles, this old-school nightclub and restaurant will forever be famous as the place where Julia Roberts launched her escargot while having dinner with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Snails are scarce on the current menu (try the poached lobster or filet mignon instead) but you can always order retro drinks like Singapore Slings, Moskow Mules, and Elderflower Champagne cocktails. Check its calendar for dress-to-impress evenings of live music and dancing.

9. Paco’s Tacos Cantina, Los Angeles
Jerry Maguire

The characters played by Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger went on their first date at this watering hole and eatery east of Marina del Rey. Order from classic combo plates or regional delights like Red Snapper Nopalitos, washed down with the house’s signature margarita. You can even sit in front of the aquarium just like Zellweger did in the 1996 movie. Adding to its Hollywood glow, the cantina appeared in the classic 1970s TV series CHiPs.

10. Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, Pioneertown
Dozens of westerns

This desert bar about 30 miles from Joshua Tree National Park has the special distinction of being built expressly for movies: Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were among the investors behind the construction of the “Pioneertown” structures, for use as sets in about 50 westerns during the 1940s and ‘50s. Pioneertown’s saloon eventually became a real bar: Come for a cold one and hear any number of acts, from indie duo Best Coast to Sean Lennon and Robert Plant.

11. Kansas City Barbecue, San Diego
Top Gun

The bar where Tom Cruise’s fighter-pilot character sings “You’ve Got That Loving Feeling” was shot in this barbecue joint in downtown San Diego, a short walk from the Convention Center and the nerve center of the annual Comic-Con. Visit today and you can pair beer with your brisket, ribs, and burnt ends, and pick up a Top Gun commemorative hat or t-shirt. As proof that Maverick and Goose were not the only flyboys to grace the establishment, photos and memorabilia from local military patrons grace the walls.

 

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