There are a number of reasons to drive over the Pasadena border to the hip stretch of York Boulevard in Highland Park, but the best one in my book is to score a cocktail at Sonny’s Hideaway. You might pass right by its unassuming facade but a hand-painted sign in the front window and a red door lets you know it’s more than a possible insurance office. Once inside, the horseshoe red leather booths seduce, the long bar beckons and the scent of muddled citrus oils entice.
Tuck into a booth with friends at Happy Hour (5 to 7 daily, closed Mondays) and plan to linger all night. The long summer daylight spills in through open doors and unshaded windows rather unattractively but once evening falls there’s an air of mystery to the place, creating a Dick Tracy-esque speakeasy joint. No whir of blenders sullies the soft din of the place. Only the sound of swirling bar spoons, clinking ice cubes and quaking shakers mix with the conversation and atmospheric music.
Place your order with the impassive waitress (she warms up as the night goes on) and wait a short while for your cocktail. Their Pimm’s Cup is a good choice at Happy Hour but for my money (a mere $6) I’ll choose the Old Fashioned.
Let me take a moment to talk about their wildly popular Old Fashioned. It’s a simple classic made of whiskey, bitters, orange zest and sugar. But bar manager Jon Navasartian takes the time to do it oh so right. Tumblers are prepped in advance with an oleo saccharum, literally “oil sugar,” made by placing citrus rinds onto sugar crystals which, over time, extract the citrus oil giving the resulting mix a rich flavor beyond its years. Add some good small batch bourbon, more bitters than you’d think, clear ice cubes and stir with a 10-inch spoon. An orange peel for aroma and voila, your bad day is about to get washed away.
This same care is taken with every cocktail from the daily seasonal punch (on my two visits I had a refreshing watermelon-basil smash and a Violet Femme made with Rittenhouse rye, creme de violette, blackberry, pepper and lemon) to their unique signature drinks such as the beautifully balanced Braveheart with Evan Williams bourbon, Ardbeg 10-year-old scotch, aloe (!) and bitters.
After choosing your poison, have a look at Chef Andres Estrada’s small plates and mains menu. The style of food defies categorization so I suppose one calls it New American. French sensibilities prevail with modern Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences. Tending toward the heady and rich, the plates are as often outstanding as they are disheartening. We were nearly blown off our bar stools sampling the octopus confit ($18). The succulent chunks of seafood were so lightly battered and quick fried you could still see every tiny octopus sucker. They were just as pretty as they were juicy and delicious. The salad underneath was an alluring blend of chick peas, pickled red onion, preserved lemon and Middle Eastern spices.
We also couldn’t get enough of the cauliflower fritters, sweet little deep fried cherry bombs lounging on a bed of honey drizzled lebne mixed with cashews and currants ($9). On the disappointing side was the shaved asparagus with quinoa, radicchio, breakfast radish, pomegranate molasses and bacon ($14). It didn’t know whether to be sweet or bitter and landed flatly in the middle.
On the Happy Hour menu, my favorite was the ricotta toast. Syrupy balsamic, fresh ricotta and spongy roasted shimeji mushrooms top a shingle of artisan toast. The duck liver pate with seasonal preserves is tempting and tasty, but be prepared for maximum richness. The smoked deviled eggs go well with that Old Fashioned. Apps range from $4 to $6.
I hear the Sonny’s Burger is to die for with its bacon, cheddar and aioli, but what burger at a top notch restaurant isn’t? The “Dry Fry” Chicken is so named because the brined free-range bird is just dusted in cornstarch before hitting the hot oil. Green papaya, mango and Napa cabbage slaw come alongside. The whole thing goes well with one of their Tiki drinks.
Did I mention Sonny’s hosts a weekly Tiki Tuesday? Well they do. There is no change in the physical atmosphere, but they pull out a killer menu of tropical cocktails made with fresh juices, rare spirits, exotic liqueurs and wild bitters. Mai Tais are available and probably Zombies but go out on a (banyan tree?) limb and order the delicious New Curse made with Zaya rum, Creole shrub, allspice dram and tiki bitters. Or perhaps pick the Dealer’s Choice and put yourself in O’Hare’s expert hands. The drinks are not cheap at $13 to $16, but they conjure the juju of the islands for a lot fewer clams than traveling there.
Desserts at Sonny’s Hideaway are respectable. The coconut tres leches, a creamy concoction that’s not quite cake and not quite custard, swims in a glossy pool of caramel. Yogurt panna cotta has a nice tang emboldened by the apricot coulis and young tarragon leaves on top.
The best way to experience Sonny’s is the European way—drink, talk, eat, drink, talk, eat, etc. My only advice is to indulge, but don’t overindulge. That goes for food as well as drink. My husband and I did wake up in the middle of the night with confused, angry stomachs, but we had tried many different things.
Sonny’s Hideaway is the kind of place that demands multiple visits. You’ll want to try every cocktail and discover your favorite plates. I’m told the offerings will change in the next few weeks to take advantage of mid-summer’s bounty. You’ll find more watermelon, tomato, apricot and peach on the menu.
So when you’re sitting around wondering what to have for dinner, don’t think “Do I want burgers, sushi or tacos?” Think, “Do I want aquavit, bourbon or Mezcal mixed with citrusy, bitter or sweet first?” Then go from there.
5137 York Blvd., Highland Park | (323) 255-2000
Full Bar/Major Cards