Affordability and Los Angeles go together maybe only at Al's Cocktails.
Three booths, one bar rail and a cash only policy is all it takes to qualify as San Gabriel’s finest dive bar, Al’s Cocktails striking a balance between a handful of updated features and the kind of décor-laden charm inherent to a good dive. Northeast of downtown Los Angeles, Al’s Cocktails exists where some of the density of the city subsides, giving way to rolling residential neighborhoods with bursts of commercial activity like the block that houses the Los Angeles dive bar.
Despite the towering, red sign, the narrow face Al’s Cocktails presents to well trafficked Las Tunas Drive makes for an easy storefront to miss, nestled between a takeout restaurant and a Dominos. Naturally more eye-catching at night, the Al’s Cocktails sign includes a bit of martini glass-infused neon at its base before a long, illuminated stretch of plastic proclaims the name of the bar and the presence of parking in the rear of the building.
Decorations reveal a lot about a dive bar, in this case the dense array of signage, framed photos and completely miscellaneous accent pieces looking maybe not dusty but not fresh either. There is some intention here, the desire to create a dive bar-like atmosphere with the right pieces, but there is also enough organically strange content here to not feel staged. Beer sign neon can be found in spots, but maybe the most interesting stretch of decoration is the golf-themed collection above the bar that features more than one signed pin flag.
Wood paneling circles the space, stretching from the area behind the Los Angeles dive bar’s three booths to behind the bar, where a stoplight, some road signs and a few vintage appliances provide another dose of quirky dive bar décor. A pair of boxing gloves can be found here hung not as a pair but separately, one of them signed, no doubt indicating some kind of story to be revealed over a cash-only drink or two.
There are updated features here, including the corrugated metal surface along the bar and modern stools that line the area, but they don’t feel overwhelmingly polished or new, allowing a bit of divey charm to still shine through at Al’s Cocktails. Some of that charm can be seen in the form of photo montages that line the pale yellow hallway, presumably depicting scenes from the not-so-distant Al’s Cocktails past filled with locals and regulars enjoying one of the more affordable drinks to be found in the Los Angeles area.
And that last bit is not to be overlooked in a city filled with relatively expensive cocktails even among Los Angeles’ dive bar population. Al’s Cocktails has a reputation for affordability that was evident on this reviewer’s first visit, ranking the San Gabriel dive bar among the most reasonably-priced dive bars in the city. Where wood paneling doesn’t cover the walls, black paint takes over, stretching to the ceiling and really sealing in the dive bar warmth that comes with brown wood and the seeming evaporation of all ambient light. Flags hang from the ceiling in spots to provide a little extra visual stimulation.
Great dive bars persist thanks to fair drink prices, authentic surroundings and a complete lack of pretention, all boxes checked by Al’s Cocktails. Part of the interest here is separating the intentional dive bar “flair” from the organic pieces left to shine among the mix of decorations, a balance walked effectively by the Los Angeles dive.