Once so popular, the speakeasy format–snaking your way through a kitchen, around a telephone booth, under a pizza box–has become a well-worn cocktail cliche that has thankfully faded into obscurity. The feeling, though, of being part of something secret is one humans will always crave, and it’s a feeling one gets when ascending the stairs to Highland Park’s Checker Hall–no password required.
Located on the second floor of what used to serve as a meeting place for Freemasons, that notoriously secretive fraternal order, Checker Hall serves as a bar and restaurant to the Lodge Room music venue next door. Far from being simply a place to kill time before the main act goes on, Checker Hall is a destination in its own right, drawing guests into its booths for an outstanding Mediterranean meal and an equally delicious drink.
While chef Hovig Agop is turning out elegant dishes like daurade over carrot puree from the kitchen, cocktail pro Rebecca Smoyer DeLeon serves up a wide range of inventive specialty bevs from the bar. Her ingredients list reads like an anything-goes affair, where moonshine and nutmeg live together in harmony. Below, we caught up with DeLeon to talk Negroni woes, flirting with a Roosevelt, and always keeping the John and Janes of the world in mind.
How long have you lived in L.A.?
Just had my 15-year anniversary beginning of this month.
Where are you from originally?
Right outside of Philly.
Where was your first job bartending in the city?
Where does Checker Hall take its cocktail menu cues from?
Me and chef Hovig really play off of each other. I’ll have a base cocktail and he will throw me some Lebanese or other Mediterranean flavors to throw into my cocktail. I always make sure there is something for everyone on my cocktail list. I personally don’t like everything on my list because it’s not my style for drinking, but John and Jane sitting over there in the corner like them so that’s what matters.
Person in history you’d most like to share a drink with and why:
Eleanor Roosevelt–always love a woman with power. I think she has many secrets to spill and the power of liquor would pull them all out. That and she’d be fun to flirt with.
Most overrated beverage:
Negroni. It’s a great cocktail, but I feel a large amount of people are ordering it because it’s the cool thing to do, not because they actually enjoy it. At least it’s quick and easy to make. That all being said, I do enjoy a Negroni!
Song currently on repeat at Checker Hall:
Our owner Hugh does the playlist and he’s pretty on-point. We have Thundercat and Todd Rundgren on the same list!
Strange fact you’ve recently learned about the Freemasons:
The thought that there was sacrificing done here creeps the shit out of me. This place definitely has a weird energy. Not good, not bad… just weird.
Best food/bev combo at Checker Hall:
Carmen #6 and anything on the menu. Truth!
Describe your favorite customer:
My favorite customer takes time to get to know me as more than the person who is feeding them alcohol. I was supposed to be a counselor and somehow fell into bartending. I enjoy when my regulars open up to me and I get to see another side of them.
What’s your latest drink obsession?
Honestly, I’m so down with taking the spritz game up right now! Anything that starts with an Aperol Spritz and adds two more ingredients is my jam. I ordered one last night and it came in a flute glass… that was not my jam!
What’s your go-to drink?
High West Campfire.
What would someone order to get your attention?
I love guests that love Chartreuse. If someone orders a Chartreuse Swizzle, I melt!
Where do you go for a drink when you’re winding down?
My couch! I’ve been bartending and in the business since I was in my twenties. I spend hours on end in bars. Now you can catch me in one once, maybe twice a week.
Best seat in the house at Checker Hall:
Table 34 out on the balcony! You get a great view of my home, DTLA, and it kinda has a New Orleans feel to it.
Best thing someone’s ever told you when you’ve been behind the bar:
“These are the best cocktails I’ve ever had.” That is the best compliment because I put my heart and soul into this program. More so than any I’ve done in the past. Each cocktail is like my baby.
Photo courtesy of Checker Hall