Hot New Bar: Koreatown's Lock & Key

Christopher Patey
Hill Harper, left, and Cyrus Batchan at Lock & Key on Vermont.

Hill Harper’s new speakeasy-esque lounge pioneers the up-and-coming scene on Vermont Avenue.

Every so often a new spot marks a key shift in L.A. nightlife. The Varnish in downtown’s Historic Core, for instance, presaged the city’s quick and widespread embrace of mixology when it bowed in 2009. Now comes Lock & Key (239 S. Vermont Ave.), a much-buzzed-about bar that opened Feb. 27 deep in the heart of Koreatown and is co-owned by actor Hill Harper (CSI: NY).

The speakeasy-esque space -- an anonymous exterior opens to a hushed anteroom defined by a long wall full of antique doorknobs, only one of which allows entrance -- constitutes a bellwether for a neighborhood on the brink of a breakout. (Up next for Koreatown: The group responsible for the NoMad Hotel in New York is renovating a 389-room hotel on Wilshire Boulevard into The Line, tentatively slated for completion by this summer. Roy Choi of Kogi and A-Frame fame will handle dining, with nightlife by the guys behind industry favorites La Descarga and Harvard & Stone.)

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“It’s definitely off the beaten path, but it won’t be for long,” says Harper’s business partner Cyrus Batchan -- the third partner is TV producer Rick Singer (Suddenly Susan, My Boys) -- of Lock & Key’s decidedly low-key location in what was until recently a seedy karaoke club called Caesar’s. In its current incarnation, reclaimed dark wood, hunter green cowboy-style bucket barstools and white Calacatta marble walls define the establishment. “You totally forget you just stepped off that stretch of Vermont Avenue by 3rd Street,” says entertainment attorney Elena Occhipinti, already a fan.

Lock & Key, which wants to join the ranks of the Roger Room and 1886 as a top-tier cocktail canteen, has brought in Christophe Namer, who boasts a sommelier background, to conjure the drinks list. Offering a fresh twist, it runs against the rather abrasive current of most mixology menus in town with relatively sweeter offerings. Expect Sancerre sauvignon blanc and gin to be amalgamated with elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and green grapes. Or pear vodka fused with ginger juice, egg white, maple syrup, black pepper and toasted sesame seed oil. (They call it the Torpedo.) “It’s like acting,” says Harper of the entire drinks-to-decor experience. “It’s all meant to take you to a different place.”