We take a seat caddy corner to a group of suits and dresses. Their formal corner of the bar, painted at the hands of Ed Hopper, starched iron lines and pointed heels, feels no more out of place than our own jeans and sweatshirts. A waitress saunters over to say hello and apologize for the noise, "we’ll be getting soundproofing done soon." Elizabeth and Alex arrive and we make a point to order quickly before the others, laying claim to the tab. Tim paid last time, and I'd be damned if we didn't go one for one. I was raised better than that.
At the bar, a mustachioed young man takes my order, smirking when I question the availability of a gin Old Fashioned. I apologize, explaining that I mean it not as a slight of skill. I'm a novice drinker and the gin Old Fashioned is kinder to my tongue and it feels masculine in title. By the time my long-winded Southern apologies pay penance, our party has arrived in full, whispering orders into my ear. A Paloma, a Paloma, a Paloma, an Old Fashioned, a Los Feliz—the house cocktail of mezcal and tequila, chili-hibiscus and blood-orange shrub.
Two servers parade out a line of fried potatoes and deviled eggs, a selection of charcuterie, a plate of corn fritters glazed with warm honey, and shrimp cocktail with roasted red pepper romesco and a mild salsa verde. Nearby, a table of two navigate a first date. They share a tepid handshake. She is an artist, accomplished but modest. He works in an office, but maybe there's still time to jump ship for something more exciting.
For a moment, I forget the inevitable step out into the humid Oklahoma summer night. I’m feeling like I am back in LA. Not the LA I was eager to leave—morning traffic and heavy rent and a downstairs neighbor, late-night crying to Manolo Otero. But the LA of crisp textures and soft weather, indulgence art.
I’m feeling like I am back in LA. Not the LA I was eager to leave—morning traffic and heavy rent and a downstairs neighbor, late-night crying to Manolo Otero. But the LA of crisp textures and soft weather, indulgence art.
Dustin Lancaster and Riley Marshall, Arbolada’s owners, met at a bar in West LA. Dustin, a bartender. Riley, a patron. After a few drinks, the two learned of a shared home state and old friends, and addresses on the same LA cul-de-sac. Over the next five years, Dustin opened up a handful of bars and restaurants under the Covell brand. Eight if you're counting, each opening to public and national-media praise. With their fill of manifest destiny, the pair decided to open a small space back home, named for the cul-de-sac where the two became friends—Arbolada.
Bar Abolada draws a very intentional balance between the luxe of LA and the comfort of Southern hospitality, a marriage of Spanish leisure and American necessity. Riley talks about Arbolada’s vibe with the same pride a father might have for a child, saying it’s “equally at home in the 1920s or the ’60s or the ’80s or now.” He fawns over the concept’s subtleties, things people “won’t notice individually, but they notice as a whole,” such as the importance of the painting over the bar for setting a mood, and stylized seating mattresses that I may have never noticed.
To me, Oklahoma and California are often at odds, but here they’ve created a bed neither too hard nor too soft, but just right. I’m here sipping my gin Old Fashioned waiting for the family of bears to come and boot me out.
Tab closed, navigating the obligatory, “I’ve got the next one,” I feel less like I am nearing the end of a night—more so a trip out of state. Sentimental hogwash, maybe, but in my head I traveled back in time, readied my spirit for battling the LA traffic back to my small apartment outside of Koreatown. But back in the present, I catch an Uber on the empty 1:00 am OKC streets, where five minutes and I’m home. My rent is cheap and people smile when they see me and the weather is unpredictable and exciting.
I have to wonder if this small piece of LA will lead to the next. The good with the bad. The congestion and the smog and the anonymity that comes with an ever-growing population. As Oklahoma City embraces the sprawl, peppering downtown with streetcars and public art, the growth of that 40/35 city that splits the country down the middle, seems all but inevitable. I am not pining for change. Riley and I are just two of many Oklahomans who’ve moved home. I'm here for many of the same reasons that you are. But for better or worse, we're growing into something different. If that means more establishments like Bar Arbolada, I think I'm willing to make the trade.
637 W Main St. @bararbolada