Evolution of the Walker Inn: an enthusiast’s perspective

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Kumquat toddies off Walker Inn’s Winter Citrus menu, served with dry spices and tinctures of cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise for a personalized cocktail. The foreground sunken ice bar chills juices and garnishes.

Writing about Los Angeles’ Walker Inn has been, since this blog began, both an imperative and an impossibility.

The Koreatown bar’s menus, themes, and approach to cocktails are of history-making importance in West Coast drinking. (As far as this amateur is concerned, they are California’s Aviary. Let more knowledgeable drinkers dispute that.) Writing about the Walker Inn, like drinking there, is obligatory.

But my three visits differed so wildly that I abandoned my unfinished story every time. What I loved about my first time at that unique bar was miles away from what mattered on the third visit.

Recently, Walker Inn staff themselves provided the key to finishing this story. Their “Bar Indepth: The Walker Inn, USA” seminar at Tales of the Cocktail laid out details from architectural design to lab equipment to income. Missing pieces fell into place as they explained the service evolution that allows them to serve more cocktails to the ideal number of drinkers at a pace that shows off their carefully planned menu and exquisite presentation.

In return, I know what the consumer gains and loses in this service evolution.

It turns out that the story I wanted to write — the loving paean to the place that gave me my benchmark for superlative hospitality — is an ode to a place that no longer exists. The Walker Inn still exemplifies theme, scientific creativity, and spectacle like nowhere else west of the Mississippi, and my admiration is largely unchanged.

But I have one critique.

Just one.

Menu 1: Wet Hot American Summer, October 2015

Our first Walker Inn theme menu was an homage to Wet Hot American Summer.

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The $65 per person three-course menu (it’s only $5 more now) allowed the guest to choose their own adventure.

My partner and I drank wildly out of order, each choosing drinks based on our favorite scenes and gags. Every drink was a discovery: the Berry Picking was garnished with edible chocolate dirt. Beth’s Going to Town! came with a little line of powdered sugar “cocaine.” The Farm Stand embedded a flavorful carrot deep in the drink. (The carrot was cooked sous vide with pear brandy, according to this indispensable insight into that menu.)

The staff was attentive, answered our questions happily, smiled at our awe, and recommended other L.A. watering holes. At the end of our delirious, gobsmacked night, the staff signed our menu like a yearbook. Delight!

Menu 2: Climate (and the hospitality high-water mark), September 2016

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The low lighting of Walker Inn defies amateur photography, but the Rice Paddy’s flowing mists inspired us to try. Not pictured: color, detail, flavor.

The place is too dim for good amateur photos, so I recommend turning to the pro outlets for photos and descriptions. Here’s the article that lured me to LA for the climate-themed menu.

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Our bartender signed the back of the menu, as was our habit before the service change.

On this visit, our bartender Amy demonstrated some of the highest virtues achievable by those in the service industry.

Naturally, she patiently entertained our specific and general cocktail questions, our clumsy attempts to photograph the unphotographable, and our ineluctable tipsiness.

More importantly, she listened to our questions and anecdotes so carefully that our idlest words affected the omakase-style cocktail tasting. For instance, because I recounted the tale of a chokingly sweet Pendennis Club cocktail that left me suspicious of apricot liqueur, Amy decided to skip a sweeter drink on the climate menu in favor of rich and bitter flavors.

This act of Amy’s, so hospitable, so thoughtful, has become my iconic example of excellent service. She is the high-water mark. To me, that represented the standards and service that the Walker Inn offered and the excellence by which all other service must be measured.

As awe-inspiring as our drinks were, Amy’s skill contributed as significantly to our perfect evening.

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Again, our poor pictures insufficiently recommend the beauty of the Walker Inn’s plating. Here are our Tropics, with pineapple leaf-scooped edible sand. 

Menu 3: Winter Citrus, March 2017

kumquat toddy

Right away, things were different. The bar was full. The bar had never been full before. Daniel and Jordan behind the bar were friendly but absorbed in the demanding process of assembling and serving six drinks at a time.

We didn’t receive physical menus, which may imply they’re no longer a meaningful part of presentation. Since guests no longer select our own courses there’s little point, I suppose. Did these beautiful drinks have clever names, like the Wet Hot American Summer menu? Were they descriptive of the drink, like the Climate menu? (This article indicates they’re named for the primary citrus ingredient.)

The drinks were art, of course. My favorite Walker Inn drink of all time might be that evening’s Lee Tangerine. “If you like Negronis, this is for you,” announced Daniel as he set them before us. He shared that this zesty, crystal clear drink of citrus distillate, Ford’s gin, Suze, Dolin Blanc, and sour orange might be on tap in the future and my fingers remain crossed for that.

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Walker Inn’s Lee Tangerine cocktail

With two other couples at the bar, there was external pressure to finish our drinks. Side-eye down the bar: they’re almost done, drink faster.

Five drink courses at an enforced pace: I  left drunker than I’d been on any previous visit when we vacated the bar to make room for the next group.

I’d also had the least personalized experience and the least opportunity to learn from the knowledgeable staff. The drinks were great but I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic for the warmer service and freer structure of past visits.

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This Mandarin shake tastes like an Orange Julius. 

It was my 40th birthday.

Service evolution and the bottom line

Trevor Easter (Walker Inn GM), Devon Tarby (Proprietors’ LLC), and Cedd Mose (213 Nightlife Group) put on a great Tales of the Cocktail panel. Among other topics, they shared several reasons behind their service changes for the bar (floor service offers a truncated set of options and seems unlikely to be affected).

  • Maximizing the surprise of presentation. When a guest down the bar gets a beautiful cocktail, the surprise of its presentation is ruined for others. Omakase-style service lets them dig deeper into the installation (a term they prefer to “theme”). with bigger, more unusual presentations that guests experience simultaneously.
  • Minimizing presentation costs. Devon mentioned that atypical glassware or serving options may present a financial challenge scaled up to accommodate an unknown number of drinkers each night, but sourcing sets of six is perfectly reasonable. I speculate that this may also encompass the costs of menu graphic design and printing.
  • Turnover efficiency. Service is a choreographed dance: six guests, two hours, repeat.

It works for them. Trevor shared a sales graph that shows significant spikes with each new menu, and recent equilibrium with sales remaining more stable in between.

Nothing that helps the Walker Inn stay in business can be bad, right?

My one critique

By moving away from a service model that gave me my hospitality benchmark to a higher-volume, depersonalized menu, the bar benefits. I’m unconvinced that the guest does.

My single critique is that a formal structure removes the one-on-one service that delighted on previous visits.

Here’s what I’ll miss as the Walker Inn embraces increased formality and individual guests disappear into a group of six:

  • Time to talk with the bartenders.
  • The joy of choosing my drinks by my own criteria and receiving the surprise of a creative serve.
  • Beautifully designed or funny menus, and my tradition of taking home a menu signed by the staff who brought me the evening’s adventure.
  • The skillful omakase personalization of a brilliant bartender who uses an overheard anecdote to adjust the guest’s tasting experience, as Amy did for me.
  • The combination of warm service and high-concept menu.

I have seen what the new service model offers me with the Winter Citrus menu, and by no means am I scared off. There’s no doubt that when I return in September the menu will delight, challenge, and enthrall.

I’m glad the new model helps the Walker Inn’s bottom line, but as an enthusiast I’ll miss the joys of its looser structure.

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