Light spills through windows, churchlike, into an industrial space whose hard edges are blunted by warm wood chairs, the stretching arms of hanging plants, a mural on the back wall. Gesso, a recent-ish addition to Fairfax Avenue, is a one-size-fits-all kind of joint, where you can grab coffee and pastries in the morning, crispy pizzas basically anytime after 11 a.m., and booze whenever the occasion calls.
It’s very rare that our Hey, Bartender! series features a space this alluring before the sun goes down, but Gesso is just one of those places. (Who, after all, doesn’t love a boozy weekend brunch?) Chef Doug Miriello’s menu is complemented by cocktails courtesy of Jamie Boalbey. Boalbey, perhaps knowing the all-day appeal of Gesso, has crafted a cocktail menu that splits, essentially, day and night. In the evenings, saddle up to the bar with a stirred Forbidden Lady (apple brandy, bourbon, Pink Lady apple gomme, drunken cranberries). Weekend, midday, have a shaken Sunday Morning (gin, Aperol, pickled fruit brine, sparkling wine, rhubarb). Whatever the occasion, and whatever the food pairing, Boalbey will have you sorted–except the morning croissant en route to work; just stick to coffee with that one.
Below, we talk to Boalbey about eager bartending beginnings, whiskey with Mark Twain, and how culinary philosophies on the plate meet their match in the glass.
How long have you lived in L.A.?
Time flies. Almost 12 years.
Where are you from originally?
Where was your first job bartending in L.A.?
Officially, my first bartending job was a year or two after I moved to L.A. [in] 2007. It was this little Japanese restaurant called Zu Robata. I wasn’t there very long, but that was my first time working with infusions. They had dozens of different and interesting ingredients infusing in shōchū at any given time. I also remember the food being pretty good. I later realized that the chef was Ricardo Zarate (before his career took off) so that makes sense.
Unofficially, I would jump behind the bar at any restaurant job I had (or bar that I frequented) and learn everything I could from whoever would teach me.
Where does Gesso take its cocktail menu cues from?
People, places, and food. My favorite cocktails are the ones that make me smile–it’s either nostalgia, a clever name, an interesting use of an ingredient, or it’s just really freakin’ good.
For Gesso’s cocktail list, I took cues from the neighborhood and what our guests might find fun and enjoyable. I thought a lot about what our chef was doing with the food and how the cocktails could play along and align with our culinary philosophies (purity, craftsmanship, seasonality). Our food menu incorporates ingredients from many different parts of the world, and it was really fun to come up with cocktails and wine selections that mirror that diversity. I travel as much as I can, and I draw a lot of inspiration from that as well.
Does California produce play a big role in your drinks?
Definitely. We are so lucky to have access to incredible produce. We change the menu seasonally, and I love involving our bar team in coming up with new ingredients and how to use them.
Person in history you’d most like to share a cocktail with and why:
Mark Twain. I think it would be an adventure! Plus, I imagine he likes good whiskey.
Most overrated beverage:
Man, that’s hard. Just when I think something is overrated or overdone I find a place or a person that makes it come to life for me.
Song currently on repeat at Gesso:
“Like It or Not” by Bob Moses.
Best pizza/bev combo at Gesso:
Our mushroom pizza with gruyere and crispy potatoes pairs really well with our cocktail called “Sloe Motion” (brandy, sloe gin, Scotch, yellow chartreuse, and bay leaf). If you want to keep it simple, order that pizza with a glass of Amontillado sherry or Lambrusco. So perfect.
Describe your favorite customer:
The one that knows what they want, but doesn’t know what they want. It’s so satisfying when you nail it!
What’s your latest drink obsession?
There’s a drink on our brunch menu called “Staycation” that I am officially obsessed with. Mezcal, tequila, fresh ginger, lime, passionfruit, and agave with a house-made Tajín rim. I have an ongoing affinity for mezcal, but who doesn’t these days?
What’s your go-to drink?
Paloma. Or, Amaro on the rocks with a grapefruit peel–you can’t mess it up.
What would someone order to get your attention?
A sherry cocktail! I adore sherry and wish that more people would try it.
Where do you go for a drink when you’re winding down?
Westbound. Their cocktails are amazing and there is always a nice relaxed vibe at the bar.
Best seat in the house at Gesso:
The right side of the bar in the corner. You can see the whole restaurant without being in the center of it. Plus, I’m more of a dine-at-the-bar kind of gal. It’s always social, and watching the bartenders work their magic is always a treat.
Best thing someone’s ever told you when you’ve been behind the bar:
So many stories. It’s hard to pick one.