BAR REVIEW: Donn the Beachcomber
The arch of a wooden porte cochère sits unmistakably yet unassumingly beside the Pacific Coast highway. Behind the bamboo double door lies a shrine to a glorious time left to wither. As I enter the main bar I am immediately aware of the culture this tiki bar set out to exploit. All the elements are present. The rustic wooden furniture, palms and bamboo. The sweet aromas of rum and pineapple are barely masked by the smell of deep fryer oil and booze soaked flooring.
The heavily understaffed bar is manned by a cheerful, fast paced tender who tonight has lost his voice. With no time to engage his guests anyway this is not much of a hinderance. I’m instantly taken aback by his mobility behind the bar. The kind of confidence that can only be gained from years of repetition in a stagnant role. Perusing the “hot-hits” cocktail menu (for no reason other than curiosity, I know what I want) I can see not a lot has changed here in the better part of a century. Nothing surprising presents itself which is not a bad thing. After all I’m ordering a Man Tai!
“What’ll it be for you?” Comes a hoarse voice from the far ice well.
“One Mai Tai for me please.”
As my final word leaves my lips a tumbler is already filled with deli ice and topped with a triple pour of stored juice and a long pour of spirit (just one bottle, probably a batch). A sad sprig of mint and candy cherry sink beneath the surface of the drink as it hits the bar in front of me and he is gone. My first sip hits my expectation with impeccable accuracy. A strong rum with shelf stable tropical juice.
Leaning back in my chair to survey the room like Rick from Casablanca, I notice the walls are heavily adorned with accumulated clutter. As with any old venue this adds to the historic feel. There is a natural flow to everything in the room. Nothing feels staged or out of place, rather each piece is another notch on a detailed timeline. The food menu however reads as a scattered list of played out and obvious dishes. Fried calamari, pork sliders and Co-Co Nuts shrimp (sic) are all present.
My Mai Tai, while lacklustre, does a good job of quenching my thirst. But it is nearly empty. My bartender is on it and I have a Painkiller in front of me before I finish my last sip. At this point a question enters my conscious. Something to ponder while I take in my surroundings. Have the quality of the drinks suffered due to issues such as budget cuts or new management, or have they just suffered the test of time? Could this simply be an archaic list of liquid dinosaurs, unadulterated and forced to survive in a world of superior palates? I think the latter is true but I’ll never truly know.
Given its position by the side of a highway, Don’s doesn’t seem to survive on a local crowd, more a slew of passers-by. Like a shrine to the days when tiki culture reigned supreme and a mecca for its resurgence of passionate disciples. The tireless work of today’s artisanal bartenders have created a customer base that is not as easily sated as 1940’s Angelinos so it is easy to dismiss this landmark venue like a horse with a broken leg.
Time seems to slow down inside and the room has the energy of a slot machine parlour in Old Vegas. Still, this was a building block for our modern cocktail culture and it should be treated as such. If you’re leaving Los Angeles en route to San Diego or further south, do yourself a favour tip your hat to this tired giant.
Contributed by Owen Westman