The michelada at La Cita Bar is a must-have, destination drink.
Downtown Los Angeles is full of varied entertainment options designed to target the many communities that populate the city. La Cita Bar, just a few steps from Grand Central Market’s hub of activity, seems to offer a little something for everyone, mashing together traditional Mexican music, late-night DJ sets, an epic back patio and a classic dive bar atmosphere. Across the multiple spaces inside La Cita Bar, it is not uncommon to see visitors of all ages and backgrounds enjoying the same, well-worn structure.
Life for La Cita Bar’s structure began in 1897, the building part of a hotel and commercial complex. After stints as various retail entities, the space now used as the Los Angeles dive bar first turned into a drinking establishment in the 1940s, known as the New Palace Café. After a shift to operating as Brass Rail Bar, the building and business were purchased by Al Daswick in the 1960s.
Daswick ushered in a period of family ownership that would stretch over four decades, most of it operating as Latin-focused La Cita Bar despite Daswick’s Russian heritage. Legend has it that after purchasing the location, Chaswick struggled to attract customers. An uptick in visits from Mexican patrons resulted in Chaswick leaning into the trend, redesigning the bar almost entirely to match Mexican culture. In the late 1960s, the Brass Rail bar name was swapped out in favor of La Cita, the front entrance reworked as the Mexican flag-laden design seen today.
The shifts in decoration were matched by a commitment to traditional Mexican and Latin music, the indoor space built around a low stage in the middle of the bar’s main room. Here, ranchero music was the norm, drawing in deep crowds of Latin drinkers to both take in the music and dance through the space. After Daswick passed away, ownership of the bar was left to son Gregory who operated the bar in its traditional fashion until selling in 2006.
With the sale came concern that new owners David Neupert, Pete Lenavitt and Jeff Semones would somehow alter what was by that point a beloved institution. Thankfully, the changes have been relatively minor, including actually turning the lights down a bit inside to create an even more dive bar-friendly atmosphere. In addition to dimming the lights, hours were extended to 2 AM (the bar previously closed much earlier). Perhaps the biggest change came in the slight reduction of evenings devoted to traditional music, dialing back to a single, cherished day each week.
Every Sunday, house band Doble Poder takes the stage inside La Cita Bar, running through a seven hour show that includes 45 minutes of continuous music every hour. While new communities have been drawn to La Cita Bar for evening DJ sets, karaoke nights, Bingo events and more, Sunday brings out La Cita Bar originals in bigger numbers, preserving the practice of taking in cumbia and norteno music in the heart of downtown Los Angeles.
Walking through the La Cita Bar space requires a significant period of pupil adjustment as this is a dark, dark Los Angeles dive bar. Multicolor string lights twist back and forth along the ceiling, the thick layers of glass bottles and long mirrors reflecting the precious little light inside. The effect is a bit dazzling, everything bathed in a red glow that feels a bit like a darkroom for old school photo development. The bar runs opposite a long, slender stage with large supporting dance floor. During traditional music, tables and chairs are brought out to fit the needs of dancers who more typically sit down to rest in between sets. Those same tables and chairs are cleared out for modern music sets, another example of the shifting ability of La Cita Bar to cater to multiple audiences.
Not to be missed is El Patio, the bar’s backyard patio that operates a bit like a separate business entirely. During days when a cover is charged to take in the music inside, access to El Patio comes with no fee. Here, a small bar services a black and red, enclosed patio area that feels almost entirely secluded from the dense Los Angeles downtown that surrounds it. A row of padded benches encircles the patio, the center filled in by a number of short tables. Shade is provided by a permanent, black and red tent-like structure in the center of the patio. Food pop ups occasionally nestle into the corner of El Patio to offer sustenance.
As far as downtown Los Angeles dive bars go, La Cita Bar is a must-visit, Sunday perfect not just to sample the traditional Latin music but also thanks to a build your own Bloody Mary bar that has earned a reputation as one of the best in the city. Unsurprisingly, the michelada here is also well loved, daily happy hours available to knock a few dollars off the price of many of La Cita Bar’s offerings. Consulting the daily calendar is always a good move as schedules do change, music options ranging from rockabilly to reggae during the week.