In a city filled with actors who make a living pretending to be someone else, the 1933 Group has carved a niche by creating bars and lounges that can transport their guests. With a focus on upscale cocktail-focused venues, the 1933 Group has been going strong in Los Angeles for more than 15 years. The company boasts a portfolio of concepts that highlight vintage Americana from the early 1900s through the 1940s, anchored by classic cocktails and drinks with history.
“The basis of our business is to create an experience for people and to take them out of the city,” says Dimitri Komarov, a co-owner and cofounder of the 1933 Group. “We try to make sure each place is completely original. Design is important, and we pay strong attention to detail, from the way our drinks look to service and friendliness. Los Angeles is a competitive town. We have to be on top of our game to succeed.”
Since the 1999 opening of its first venue—the mountain cabin–themed Bigfoot Lodge in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village neighborhood—the 1933 Group has indeed enjoyed success. The company now operates eight bars and lounges in the city and will debut its ninth location early next year. Revenues top $12 million annually, led by spirits and cocktails. Komarov and his partners avoid well-established areas of Los Angeles, choosing instead to place their concepts in up-and-coming neighborhoods to attract local clientele. This strategy has served the company well.
“When we started, there wasn’t much of a cocktail scene in Los Angeles,” Komarov says. “We were one of the first companies to build a cool cocktail bar here. As we’ve grown, we’ve tried to open locations in areas where the neighborhood would grow around us and where we could serve the community. We’ve become one of the premier cocktail bar operators in Los Angeles, and now our venues are destinations.”
Bigfoot Lodge’s concept differed from everything else in Los Angeles at the time. The venue is an urban ode to the great outdoors, with a wilderness-themed interior outfitted in natural wood and enhanced with taxidermy elements. Komarov and business partner Dmitry Liberman—who jointly ran the women’s clothing company Komarov Inc. with Komarov’s mother, Shelley—had no plans to enter the bar sector. But restaurateur Bobby Green approached them with the business plan for Bigfoot Lodge, initially just to ask for financing. Komarov and Liberman decided to become full partners in the venture, purchasing the building where Bigfoot Lodge is located.
“The 1933 Group was supposed to be a side business to the clothing company,” Komarov says. “We agreed to get involved as a real estate play, and we returned our initial investment within the first year. We remained passive business partners for a few years, but we jumped in as sales grew. Now we’re actively growing the business. We were told the shelf life for Bigfoot Lodge was only five years, but our sales had doubled by that point, and now we’re in our 16th year of business.”
The hunting lodge–style concept offers a selection of classic cocktails like the Buffalo Trace Bourbon–based Boulevardier and Evan Williams Bourbon–based Old Fashioned, alongside signature drinks ($12). Standouts include the Toasted Marshmallow, mixed with 1921 La Crema de Mexico Tequila cream liqueur, Sailor Jerry Spiced rum, Fernet-Branca, honey and a toasted marshmallow garnish, and the Creaky Gate, comprising Beefeater gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and Segura Viudas Brut Cava. Bigfoot Lodge also has a selection of shots and a beer list that spans a variety of craft and well-known labels, from Golden Road hefeweizen and New English Brewing Co.’s Humbly Legit IPA to Pabst Blue Ribbon and Stella Artois ($4 to $10 to draft pour, bottle or can).
Bigfoot Lodge doesn’t serve food, so the drinks business is critical. Spirits and cocktails make up more than half of the 1933 Group’s overall sales. The company gravitates toward boutique spirits labels and bartenders regularly press their own juices and make their own ginger beer.
“Our company’s bar managers are very creative,” explains Jared Mort, the 1933 Group’s general manager. “We choose people who have a vision for their bar. Our menus are tailored to each venue and the drinks help create the scene.” Komarov adds that the beverage component is crucial. “Alcohol is everything for us,” he says. “We’re all about creating a strong and balanced cocktail menu. That’s always been a major focus for 1933.”
The 1933 Group management focused exclusively on Bigfoot Lodge for many years, adding additional locations of the concept in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The company sold the Bay Area outlet a few years ago, but still manages Bigfoot West on L.A.’s Venice Boulevard. Once the 1933 Group committed to growing, expansion came rapidly with the introduction of the whisk(e)y haven Thirsty Crow in 2010, the classic cocktail den Oldfield’s Liquor Room in 2011, the Mexican grotto–styled La Cuevita and the Southern gem Sassafras in 2012, the upscale mixology lounge Harlowe in 2014, and the barrel-inspired Idle Hour earlier this year. Their ninth venue, the vintage bowling alley Highland Park Bowl, will open in the first quarter of 2016.
The company often seeks out and restores historic spaces in Los Angeles, adding to the vintage vibe of its bars and lounges. Each concept is different in design and execution, and Komarov notes that the décor and drinks programs at his company’s venues set them apart from the on-premise competition in the crowded L.A. market, while also reinforcing the 1933 Group identity. “Guests can tell we design our own spaces because we have a certain look for our bars, even though each one appears different,” Komarov says. “We do a lot of timeless designs. They all feature vintage Americana, but from different parts of the country, and some have European, Parisian or Belgian flair.”
Thirsty Crow in Silver Lake aims to be a true neighborhood watering hole, with live music and more than 100 whiskies on the back bar, including 60 Bourbons ($8 to $65 a 1½-ounce pour). Meanwhile, Oldfield’s Liquor Room in Culver City is a classic cocktail bar that boasts several pre-Prohibition–era drinks and house-made syrups, shrubs and spirits infusions, as well as seasonal specialties that change regularly. House cocktails ($12) include the Oldfield’s Hemingway, made with Jim Beam rye, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit and lime juice, while the summer menu offered the Demasco, mixing Tito’s Handmade vodka, Aperol aperitif, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot liqueur, orange and lemon juices, and soda water. At La Cuevita—the 1933 Group’s ode to Mexican culture—myriad Tequilas and mezcals are highlighted.
Meanwhile, Sassafras pays homage to Savannah, Georgia, and was crafted from a townhouse that the 1933 Group dismantled in the Peach State and brought to Los Angeles. The Southern theme is prevalent in the drinks at Sassafras, which include such classics as the Vieux Carré and the Hurricane, along with upscale frozen cocktails like the Red Right Hand, comprising Aviation gin, Bénédictine liqueur, Angostura bitters, and cherry, lemon and pineapple juices (cocktails are $13 to $14).
The most recent additions for the 1933 Group—Harlowe in West Hollywood and Idle Hour in North Hollywood—both boast ambitious drinks programs and are the company’s only two locations that serve food. Harlowe is an elegant cocktail lounge that pays tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age, with a far-reaching drinks menu and a selection of upscale small plates and larger dishes. The bar boasts traditionally prepared specialty drinks and draft and bottled cocktails ($12 to $14), such as the Mexican Firing Squad, made with Olmeca Altos Reposado Tequila, Angostura bitters, house-made grenadine and lime juice. Harlowe is also one of the 1933 Group’s few venues to offer wine ($10 to $14 a glass; $45 to $160 a 750-ml. bottle). Food selections include dishes like Steak & Frites, Prosciutto & Pate and Charred Butter Lettuce, served with yuzu dressing, cured egg yolk and togarashi (food ranges from $8 to $20).
Idle Hour sits in a barrel-shaped building that’s derived in part from Los Angeles’ programmatic architecture movement. The themed space also boasts an array of specialty drinks and draft and bottled cocktails, as well as the 1933 Group’s largest beer menu. The venue’s 20 beer taps pour everything from Magic Hat #9 to Alaskan amber ale to Sonoma The Pitchfork pear cider ($5 to $10 a draft pour or bottle). These offerings join house cocktails like the Copperhead, mixing Ancient Age Bourbon, Cappelletti Americano Rosso aperitif, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Charles & Charles rosé, Fee Brothers Grapefruit bitters and a Pernod absinthe rinse, as well as shared plates, sandwiches and larger entrées ($8 to $22).
While menus for each 1933 Group concept differ widely, every venue within the company offers a Mule or Buck-style drink. “We’ve seen a big push for classic cocktails, and Moscow Mules and ginger beer drinks are really popular for us,” Komarov explains. “We sell a lot of whisk(e)y and whisk(e)y-based drinks, and we have a strong list of Bourbons and Scotches.” He adds that having a balanced beer selection is also important.
The executives at the 1933 Group have been successful in part because of their ability to anticipate Los Angeles areas that would eventually become popular, such as Silver Lake, Culver City and Highland Park. The company’s bars attract urban professionals between the ages of 25 and 45 who have some disposable income. These same people have helped revitalize the neighborhoods where the 1933 Group now thrives.
“What separates our company from everyone else is that we’re not driven to have the coolest or most well-known bars,” Mort says. “We don’t run lines or charge covers and we have a loyal celebrity clientele because we don’t treat them any differently. Each of our bars is kind of like a movie set that transports people to someplace else. They’re an escape, and that’s needed in Los Angeles.”
Though it has a corporate structure, the 1933 Group is also accommodating to its bar managers and bartenders, allowing them a lot of input in operations, drinks creation and menus. The company aims to recruit bartenders who already have a following in Los Angeles—a status that in turn raises the profile of their venues and attracts new customers. Highland Park Bowl will take this notion a step further by hosting dueling bars and encouraging bartenders throughout Los Angeles to form teams that will not only bowl, but also take part in drinks competitions.
“Every new bar we open is getting bigger in concept and financial investment,” Komarov says. “We plan to grow, whether we do it by ourselves or find partners. We’re definitely interested in expanding outside of Los Angeles—back to San Francisco or even beyond California. We’ve been able to attract some of the best bar talent in the city because of our reputation. Our bars create different experiences with the right ambiance, music and drinks mix, and that’s kept us relevant.”