By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Photos by RICH SCHMITT | Staff Photographer
Seaside Santa Monica surely has a lot of competition for your bar dollars, from the Britannia strip along Santa Monica Boulevard to the Ocean Avenue elegance of steak-and-seafood houses Water Grill, Blue Plate Oysterette and Red O, to the tourist favorites of Third Street Promenade.
Any one of these spots may do the trick. However, when it comes to cocktails, style and ambiance, Copa d’Oro is truly something special—at once cozy and intimate and larger than life.
Copa d’Oro is the love child of Buddha’s Belly owner Jonathan Chu and bartender Vincenzo Marianella.
“He built it, I created it,” Marianella said of their partnership. “We [envisioned] a place where people can have fun.”
Not just fun but also get exposure to music and art. Over the bar’s eight years, Copa has cultivated more than just a swank speakeasy aesthetic and neighborhood bar vibe. It’s also encouraged local culture, attracting artists such as longtime Venetian muralist John Park to live-paint as DJs spin on Thursday nights.
Copa’s staff sets the tone. Despite his fame, Marianella is very hands-on, accessible and easy to converse with. General Manager Hector Bury—himself a skilled bartender with 20 years of experience at the late, lamented Joe’s in Venice—is friendly, gregarious and informed.
Marianella is a powerhouse mixologist and each of his libations is a revelation in a glass; confident creations infused with much love, care and artistry. This is not the bar to hit if you like your alcoholic treats watered down and loaded with ice. These are not Disneyland-grade drinks and there are no shortcuts taken here: These cocktails are as strong as they are flavorful.
Marianella’s rise as a bartender has been well chronicled as the dashing Italian barmeister has been credited for creating a craft cocktail renaissance in Los Angeles’ epicurean scene. At Copa d’Oro, he’s transmitted his extensive resume and worldly knowledge into every sip of some of the most fantastic adult beverages you may ever taste in LA.
Marianella recalled how when he and Chu opened Copa in 2009, “there was no craft cocktail lounge at the time.”
The vibe at this bar is very chill. Copa appeared empty when we got there early on a Tuesday evening, yet within an hour, this place was lit with friends catching up along the counter and young couples on dates.
No doubt informing the atmosphere is the site’s history, including the ghosts of legendary bars from years past. Across four decades, this location used to be the Lightning Room and Mr. B’s, where burlesque legend Betty Rowland (“a fiery redhead,” as Bury described her) tended bar.
Marianella has created some exciting selections in every major alcoholic category. A winning gin-based cocktail is the Forget-Me-Not, packed with elderflower liqueur, mint, lime and pear, and as bright and fresh tasting as it sounds.
Other gin options include the strawberry-basil-and-soda-informed Hoodoo and the retro-named Smokey & the Bandit, which mixes its gin with mezcal and goes deep with Martini Rubio Vermouth and orange bitters.
Two of the drinks we tried are wonderfully harsh. Off the whiskey list, East of Manhattan combines bourbon, Laphroaig Cask Strength, Amato Nonino, absinthe (which doesn’t overwhelm) and Jerry Thomas bitters. The smooth and lingering Mexico City pulls no punches with its mezcal-Amaro Nonino-Peychaud’s-bitters wallop.
Tequila is Marianella’s favorite base, so you can’t go wrong trying a Ruby Slipper (lychee liqueur with ruby red grapefruit and lime) or a Twin Thieves, a union of Amaros Montenegro and Zucca with orange bitters.
Rum-wise, try the King of Bahia, with its cachaca, St. Germain, jalapeno and passion fruit charms, or the Angry Redhead (a tip of the hair to Rowland?), with its dark rum base, honey, ginger syrup and Angostura bitters. (You can also order the more ubiquitously found Mai Tai and Mojito.)
In addition to Copa d’Oro, Chu and Marianella run the neighboring, two-year-old restaurant The Independence, where Marianella has also curated the cocktail program. The only crossover at both places is Marianella’s signature Campanula Sour, a piquant blend of Finlandia grapefruit vodka, mint, St. Germain and fresh lemon juice and indeed, it’s easy to see why this colorful extrovert-of-a-drink is very special, down to the flower of red pepper floating on its surface.
Adventurous high rollers can really shoot for the moon here. The teasing “Just Because” menu offers the 5th Ave. Manhattan, which, with its 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, Martini Rossi Gran Lusso and Angostura bitters, will set you back $225 a glass.
Or, there’s the bank account-breaking King Smoke of Scotland, featuring 32-year-old Laphroaig single malt scotch, St. Germain and Martini Extra Dry and Averna—ambitiously priced at $375 a swig. But don’t let these anomalous glasses intimidate you—most items here are pretty reasonably priced.
Not to be trifled with is the menu of food accompaniments that are classy and European in nature, not fried or greasy. We sampled the Charcuterie & Cheese Board, a generous platter of fresh deli meats, cheeses and fruit that included prosciutto, Manchego, triple-cream brie, chorizo and sliced apples; the pesto-flavored Mozarella & Roasted Tomato; and Spinach and Brie, one of several panini sandwiches listed. All hit the spot.
At the end of the day, Copa d’Oro—just a short drive down the hill—makes for a fun time. Marianella was right to name that gin drink the Forget-Me-Not because any evening here will surely be a night to remember.