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iO West's Updated Bar Deserves Another Round

Photo courtesy iochicago via Flickr.
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If you’ve spent any time walking the star-stamped sidewalks of Hollywood Blvd., you’ve certainly passed by iO West dozens of times. (That’s iO like “eye-oh”, as in formerly short for Improv Olympic, before some legal name-wrangling led to the truncation). Their alumni roster reads like a comedian wish list for television and movie executives, but these days it’s the drinks menu that might just have you craning your neck for a better look.

Just like the parent theater in Chicago, iO West has long had a bar sharing space with the stage. Hell, in Chicago they’re in the same room. It’s a natural congregation point for performers to unwind after a performance, for students looking to interact together, and for the everyman to down a glass before being persuaded through the door and into a show. But normally, that was about it. The bar was an easy, central location mostly intended for people already into the comedy scene with cheap beers on tap and a television tossed into one corner. Even after a daytime DUI crash led to a much-needed facelift for the bar, the basic dynamics remained the same.

Now, something’s changed. With the introduction of new bar manager Brandon Sornberger - himself a former Chicago performer - the whole operation has been given an upgrade. Instead of the lineup of domestic bottles that let you know which five beers were kept on hand, there’s a whole run of sleek bar menus. One side showcases a well-dressed list of craft beers, hand-picked by Sornberger with an eye towards LA’s still-exploding beer scene. Big hits from known drink darlings like Ommegang, Deschutes and Rogue pepper the listing, with enough old standbys (Guinness, anyone?) to keep that everyman happy.

Flip the card for an even more impressive slate of bourbons, from Old Grand Dad to Buffalo Trace and on through Even Williams Single Barrel. With whimsical north-south arrows that drop the eye from good to great (with a price scale to match), you can easily dial in your tastebuds and account balance in one easy step. There are several small batches on the list, and the inclusion of a few single barrels shows Sornberger’s dedication to providing an interesting drinking experience.

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Most of the beers are sturdy additions without being overwhelming or snobby; they're even broken down simply by flavor, with the more astute drinkers turning their eyes to the bottom of each category for the more creative brews on hand. As for the bourbons, strong and straightforward isn't always the way to go, when a more even-handed rye or even a simple Knob Creek could suffice. Sornberger has taken pains to make a focused menu that tries to please without showing off. Which is no small feat, given iO West’s proximity to the clubs and sudsy burger spots that populate this stretch of Hollywood.

Thankfully, the bar isn’t really trying to compete in those arenas. There’s no food and no cover, just a few barstools tucked under a dark-stained wood bar and a miniscule sitting area up a handful of steps, for those who need that bottle service feel at Amstel Light prices. It’s nice to know that you can still get a decent craft beer in Hollywood without standing behind a velvet rope or begging your parents for more money. You don't even have to catch a show, you can happily spend your night propping up a corner of the bar. But beware: you might have one of those celebrity spotting moments while tucked in with a one-off draught that Sornberger's brought in for the night. Rest assured they’re just moving through the crowd because they’re in the next show. Believe it or not, even with a brand new tap list and a curated set of quality bourbons, this is still a comedy theater after all.

iO West
6366 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
Doors open at 6:30pm weeknights, 7pm on weekends.