You might think a cocktail is just a cocktail. But at downtown Modesto’s newest bar, a cocktail is an invitation to explore history.
Lo-Fi, a new craft cocktail lounge, opened at the end of May on J Street. Since then, the watering hole has become a welcome addition to the downtown bar scene, offering a unique stop for pub crawlers and a cozy spot for regulars.
Owner and Modesto native Lauren Jamieson said her reason for opening the bar was simple.
“This is my hometown and I wanted to open a bar for my people,” she said. “We’re really excited to be part of all these bars downtown now.”
Jamieson grew up in Modesto and attended the Modesto Adventist Academy. The day after graduating high school, she was hired on at downtown restaurant Harvest Moon, and from there on, she spent close to the next decade working in the city’s restaurants. In 2006, she moved to New Orleans to study at Tulane University, where her interest in the history of cocktails began to blossom.
“I had been a cook for many, many years,” she said. “I hadn’t really researched cocktails. But in New Orleans, cocktails are essential for brunch. Cocktails are an American thing — invented here and reflecting our history.”
So upon returning to Modesto in 2016 after 10 years in The Big Easy, Jamieson set out to open her own place. Lo-Fi makes cocktails the old-fashioned way, with house-made juices, syrups, mixers, garnishes and more.
Jamieson and head bartender Shawna Pierce are serious about their sourcing as well, preferring regional distillers and artisan brands. So you won’t find the mainstream staples — like Jack Daniels whiskey, Absolut vodka or Jose Cuervo tequila — on the shelf.
What you will find instead is a warm greeting and bowl of snacks brought over upon sitting down. The crispy offerings are actually a sly distraction to get patrons to slow down and think about what they want to drink, Pierce said. Instead of just ordering a quick well drink, like a gin and tonic or a screwdriver, they might choose one of the nine house special cocktails.
Lo-Fi’s specials offer a trip through American history with pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and post-Prohibition era drinks.
“A lot of cocktails have been lost to time,” Pierce said. “But I love the fact that you can bring a drink back.”
Specials include the Clover Club (a pre-Prohibition drink popular in the 1880s with gin, raspberry, lemon and egg whites shaken to frothy perfection), the Hemingway Daiquiri (a 1920s Prohibition-era drink of rum, grapefuit, lime and maraschino that was purportedly the author’s favorite), and The Local Bitter (a smoky post-Prohibition contemporary drink of dry rye gin, sweet vermouth, gran classico and burnt orange peel).
To keep with its local vibe, they will also feature a farmers market punch with seasonal ingredients from the downtown Modesto market every week.
But Jamieson’s three-person staff would be happy to suggest a custom cocktail for you, and to field questions about any of the drinks. In fact, they relish the opportunity to share the stories behind some of the drinks.
“Liquor did not taste good back in the day, so they sought any way to make it delightful instead,” Pierce said of some of the recipes. “People think they’re bothering me with the questions, but I love it.”
Pierce used to manage the bar at nearby Dewz Restaurant, and has studied her craft at various workshops and symposiums across the country. All that knowledge could also be yours in the future. The bar staff plans to lead mixology classes, starting in coming months, offering tips and techniques, as well as seasonal recipes.
For those not into cocktails, Lo-Fi also offers canned options of local and regional craft beers — including from the valley’s own Dust Bowl and Blaker brewing companies — as well as spritzers and wine. And, for the non-drinkers out there, the bar also carries non-alcoholic liquors and staff would be happy to whip up a mocktail for you instead. House specials run $12; well drinks average about $8. And beers and wines run $3 to $8.
The low-key bar projects an intentionally Art Deco vibe, drawing inspiration from its proximity to its 1934-built nearby neighbor the State Theatre. Two swooping green couches make up one wall and a long bar the other in the narrow, 1,500-square-foot space. The unisex bathroom in the back is unmistakable thanks to its painted Prince (or, more accurately, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince) symbol.
The floor at the entrance and around the bar is embedded with real vinyl records, most from Jamieson and her family’s own collection. More nods to music, her other love, are also planned in the bar’s decor. And a large mural has been commissioned to go up this fall above the couches, which will portray famous women in history.
For now, only the space’s first level is open, but Jamieson has long-range plans for the smaller upstairs space. So, if all goes well, she hopes to install a secret hideaway tiki bar on the second story. Currently, the intimate bar can fit about 45 people.
The bar has regular live music on Sundays (from 1 to 4 p.m.), and sometimes sporadically through the week as well, and plans to add other special nights in the future.