From their backyard speakeasy, Jessica Smyth and Bobby Lincoln have created a cocktail community in Northeast L.A.
A Stubborn Nail cocktail doesn’t flex itself the way a lot of cocktails do these days — with a long list of ingredients you’ve never heard of. Instead, it’s a simple, well-made, seasonal beverage derived from Jessica Smyth’s current mood, her mindset and the state of her garden.
Smyth is behind the Glassell Park speakeasy-turned bar consulting group The Stubborn Nail. Together with co-owner and boyfriend Bobby Lincoln, they’re bringing the Northeast Los Angeles community together through high-end cocktails and the kind of intimate moments that are often rare in the L.A. bar experience.
That’s not to say that The Stubborn Nail is a bar — legally speaking, it can’t be. Since The Stubborn Nail operates out of Lincoln and Smyth’s garage, it’s more like an invite-only house party. Every bottle on their well-stocked shelf is either donated or purchased from their own pocket.
An Art Project
An avid woodworker, Lincoln initially planned for the garage space to be nothing more than a woodshop. At that time, craft beer was his thing. If you asked him two years ago what his favorite cocktail was, he would have said, “Who even uses that word?”
Bobby Lincoln built The Stubborn Nail bar by hand inside the couple’s garage in Glassell Park. Photo by David Ross.
As a beer lover, he spent loads of time at Verdugo Bar, a Glassell Park hang known for its beer list. This is where he met and soon started dating, Smyth. She had worked behind the bar at several joints at this point, including the now-shuttered Five at the Hotel Shattuck in Berkeley, where she first started experimenting with spirits.
“Everything was fresh and housemade,” Smyth says. “Our well was Plymouth and Sazerac rye. I got a really good foundation in classic cocktails using only the freshest stuff.”
When Lincoln and Smyth realized they both shared a dream of running their own bar, they opened up The Stubborn Nail in their backyard. For Lincoln, creating a laid-back drinking destination was only part of the goal.
“When I go to a bar, the first thing I’m looking at is how is everything finished,” he says. “How are the speakers built in? What’s the music? How does the lighting work? That to me is really interesting, which is part of why this was so much fun. It was like a big art project.”
Garden to Glass
A lot of places refer to themselves as speakeasies, but it’s rare when that is actually the case. As far as the Nail goes, it really is one. Just like speakeasies were illegal during prohibition, The Stubborn Nail is illegal if it claims to be a business.
Jessica Smyth’s cocktail creations. Photos courtesy of Eugene Lee and Stubborn Nail.
When Lincoln was finished building the bar — alone, by hand and while battling a torn Achilles — he and Smyth were trying to widen the speakeasy loophole as best they could. The rules were clear: no money would be accepted and there would be no walk-ins, to control the guest list. If people were inclined to donate, they could do so through Venmo or by showing up with a bottle of something interesting. But payment was never mandatory.
For a full year, The Stubborn Nail opened up twice a week and became a playground for Smyth’s drink-making creativity. Pretty soon she was entering and winning cocktail competitions and letting her garden, mere feet from the garage, do the talking. Her drinks feature home-grown ingredients like mint, arugula blossoms and chilies, as well as house-made modifiers like allspice drams, fennel-infused agave syrups and lime oleo-saccharum.
“It’s just how I was raised,” Smyth says. “My mom always had fresh herbs growing.”
This is no doubt why she refers to her drinks as “garden to glass.”
As Smyth’s drinks took off, so too did the Stubborn Nail community. “You go to a normal bar with your friends, and that’s who you talk to,” Smyth says. “Every single time we had people over here, no matter if there were five or 25 people crammed in, everybody talked to everybody by the end of the night. That just doesn’t happen at a normal bar.”
Bobby Lincoln and Jessica Smyth. Photo courtesy of Stubborn Nail.
The small space lent itself to genuine interaction, and today The Stubborn Nail has a collection of faithful regulars.
Before long, their Instagram DMs were full of reservation requests. Smyth’s drinks are now the stuff of legend in Northeast L.A., and the formerly craft beer-loving Lincoln mixes negronis like a wisened hotel bartender.
As the current bar lead at Genever in Historic Filipinotown, Smyth credits her success to the popularity of her menus at the Nail. “It completely launched my career,” she says.
Stubborn Nail 2.0
Though speakeasy nights at The Stubborn Nail are a lot more scarce now that Smyth and Lincoln’s for-pay work has taken off, it’s far from over. Now, Stubborn Nail is available for private parties and events as well as bar and menu consultation. At a recent 300-person wedding, Lincoln spent several hours juicing lemons by hand to keep up the everything-made-in-house Nail spirit.
Today, their Instagram page stays engaged and their consultation and private event services keep them busy. And it’s not unusual to spot somebody walking around Northeast L.A. sporting a black hoodie emblazoned with The Stubborn Nail logo.
“We built the space,” Lincoln says, looking back on The Stubborn Nail’s beginnings, “and the community fueled it.”