“My grandmother taught me how to drink whiskey,” says Cedd Moses in a slight drawl that tips to his Bristol, Virginia roots. We’re sipping glasses of the 107 proof “good stuff” in a padded booth at his Los Angeles bar Seven Grand, where Moses tells me about the lady who may have just inspired her grandson’s rise as the king of downtown nightlife — 12 bars and restaurants and counting. “My grandmother was the most social woman in town and she would drink mint juleps all afternoon until the fireflies came out,” he recalls. “When that first firefly came out, she would switch to bourbon and branch water. They drank a lot of bourbon there and she could outdrink all the men in that town.”
Like his grandma (god bless her), Moses’ thirst not only runs strong for darkly aged spirits, but for selling those spirits — with a little L.A. vibe — in a roster of bars artfully wedged into the formerly gritty warehouse spaces and smoky backrooms lining the downtown expanse.
There’s The Varnish, which he opened three and a half years ago in the back of Cole’s French Dip — an L.A. relic known mostly for inventing a mediocre sandwich. But Moses saw potential, and an unused stockroom in the restaurant’s rear, which he transformed into a destination cocktail lounge serving classics like the bramble and gin fizz to a crowd of industry and Hollywood stars. The rest of Los Angeles seemed to follow, and this year The Varnish won Best American Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail. The honor is more Oscar than People’s Choice in the nighlife world. And of course, there was a speech.
“Seven years ago I came out here and everybody was laughing about the bars in L.A.,” he said while accepting the award from the stage in New Orleans. And, indeed, times have changed downtown, where Moses’ outlook has been slightly bullish. Under his 213 Nightlife umbrella, he’s opened or taken over an authentic Irish pub (Casey’s), 300-bottle whiskey bar (Seven Grand), a well-polished neighborhood tap (Golden Gopher) and a rum bar whose entrance is only found after walking through a parking garage (Caña Rum Bar). This goes along with an estimated 40+ buildings and leases he owns in the surrounding neighborhood. There’s no slowing down for Cedd Moses, who might just turn out to be the Drew Nieporent of downtown Los Angeles.
You opened your first bar, Liquid Kitty, in 1996 which many credit as the first serious cocktail bar in the city. How did that happen?
That was 17 bars ago, wow. At the time, I was living down in Venice, and there were no good bars on the West Side at all. My buddies had to go into Hollywood and risk it. They’d go to Sean MacPherson’s or Mark Smith’s bars. Hollywood had a good rock and roll bar scene: legendary places like The Olive were brilliant inspirations for me to open my first place. That and Small’s were probably the two most inspirational places for me. I saw a niche, and the Liquid Kitty ended up being a new type of venue for LA: great atmosphere, great hospitality and an edge too. I saw an opportunity on the West Side to do something like that.
Were you thinking seriously about drinks at that point?
That was just one part of our hospitality philosophy. A drink should be great at any venue, as should the open atmosphere and the music. Even now, drinks are just one part of what we do.
If drinks are one tenet, what are some other tenets?
New Orleans is the perfect example of everything we strive for: soul and depth, character, hospitality and decadence. If you can get all of those at the same time, you are winning.
You say a lot of bars cut corners, which you refuse to do. What exactly does that mean?
If you’re passionate about what you do and you love good bars, you set out to build the best possible one. With this bar, I wanted to build the best whisky bar in the country. I didn’t want to build an okay whisky bar, I wanted to build the best one in the country. I spent about two years researching the best whisky bars in the world – I traveled to Kentucky, Ireland and Scotland of course. I took my whisky bible with me and went to every whisky conference and almost every distillery in Kentucky. I went to all of them in Ireland and as many as I could in Scotland, along with some of the most prominent whisky bars in the world.
You have embraced downtown Los Angeles with great vigor, and investment. It’s similar to what Drew Nieporent did with Tribeca. Why is this such a great place to open bars?
Starting in the late ’90s I had a vision to build 10 bars down here. It was a clean slate — there was a ton of real estate with a ton of character that was available to build bars and restaurants, and I felt that downtown was about to make a huge turn towards the perfect demographic to go to bars. All of the places that I opened already had character and history. Any place that has four dry walls around it has no soul or character — and is bound to fail.
What is the residential scene like now?
People wanted to move downtown for the last 20 or 30 years but they couldn’t because the zoning on all of these buildings didn’t allow them to be turned residential. As soon as they passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, I left my former career [as a financial manager] and invested everything in downtown.
Late ’98, early ’99. I started buying up real estate down here and tying up master leases.
These were basically shitholes when you took them over, no?
People thought I was crazy to open even one place here. People thought I was out of my mind to give up a multi-million dollar per year Wall Street career to build 10 bars on Skid Row. Those same people on Wall Street who told me I was crazy lost their jobs in the next six or seven years [laughs].
And those guys are jerks, which you are not.
I don’t talk shit about anyone. I’ve got a good business sense, but more than anything I wanted to build something that was the anti-thesis of what was happening in LA, and give these buildings a chance to revive downtown and revive the cocktail culture with establishments that appreciate spirits. Everyone else was pouring vodka and acting like it was gold.
And charging $26 for a glass of it?
Right. $500 per bottles.
Do you do bottle service?
No. We’ll sell bottles of champagne. We do punch service, too, which is affordable. You get a whisky that has been aged nine years made into a 10-person punch for $90 instead of a bottle of crappy vodka for $500-1,000. It’s a little bit different [laughs].
Look now look at all these places down here. There’s The Parish…
The owners are all friends of mine. A lot of them are people that worked for me at one time and I have encouraged them to come down here. I talked Bottega Louie into coming in, Mo-Chica into coming in.
You’re a bit of a minder for the neighborhood…
We all are, it’s the culture.
It’s a bit like the history of SoHo in New York.
Sure. My dad bought a studio there for around $20,000 around 30 years ago when it was pretty rough. I got mugged in that neighborhood.
Let’s talk about this year: You were recognized at Tales of the Cocktail as Best American Cocktail Bar for The Varnish. We spoke before the award was given out and you were nervous…
I was nervous, you say?
I talked to you before the award and you were like, “Let’s actually not fucking talk.” It’s a bit of a long time coming, wouldn’t you say?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been going to Tales wanting to win Best Cocktail Bar for 10 years now. When we started going to Tales, some people were laughing at us. There were a couple people from L.A., New Yorkers, people from London, laughing that we could have good cocktail bars in L.A. We’ve been nominated for the past five or six years for Best Cocktail Bar and Best High Volume Cocktail Bar.
It’s a huge honor because there are a lot of great bars out there and mixology is bigger than ever, so I’m sure you’re pretty happy about it?
Ohhhh, yeah, it’s huge. You were at the celebration! I was definitely happy about it. I noticed that generally at Tales, it takes bars a couple of years being nominated before they win, and Varnish had been nominated for two years.
How do you find your spaces? Do you just walk around?
I tour at least two buildings a day.
So you have your bar business and your real estate business…
Primarily what I am focused on is keeping everything moving with our current venues, but also focusing on future operations. I have a great team of people focused on the day-to-day and I get involved in the first six months to dial it in, and once it is dialed in, I am hands-off. I just check the numbers and make sure everything is in line with our philosophy. I am focused on our next eight venues right now.
Are you looking outside of downtown?
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