A West Hollywood cafe, the Lowell, breaks new ground as the first US full-service restaurant with cannabis on the menu and in the air.
As cannabis further works its way into everyday American life, the corner of La Brea and Lexington Avenues in Los Angeles makes history as the intersection of hospitality and cannabis industries in a mainstreaming of the cannabis experience that changes everything by reaching pot aficionados where they eat.
After a one-week soft launch, Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café (the formal name) opened for business on Oct. 1 as the first US full-service restaurant with cannabis legally on the menu and in the air. The Lowell Café, in the historically progressive enclave of West Hollywood, CA, may be the single most commercially populist outcome of Proposition 64, the state initiative (legalizing recreational marijuana use by adults) that voters approved in November 2016.
The Lowell fills in a hole in American cannabis consumption. Since January 2018 in California, you could smoke cannabis legally but only in a private place, presumably in the company of friends. If you smoked in public, you were relegated to dark corners and side streets. Smoking in a restaurant? Maybe a furtive pull or two on a vape pen before somebody objected.
Not anymore. With its full-on entrée into L.A. culinary and cultural life, the Lowell Café shows how established commerce can co-exist with the brash outsider commodity making its way into the mainstream. While true to a cannabis-friendly ethos, the Lowell also embraces that other edible experience, the one everybody enjoys (well, at least everyone over 21 years old).
“Apart from getting a consumption license, the ultimate goal was to break the stigma around cannabis,” said Lily Estanislao, the Lowell’s general manager. “We just want to really take the negativity away from it and create a culture where... if this works, it ain’t so bad.” To go by a visit on a recent mid-afternoon, there’s no question it fills a need. The Lowell had its reservation slots filled weeks before it opened; the line to get inside stretched south down LaBrea Avenue (walk-ins are welcome, with bar seating available).
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The Lowell Café is an investment venture of Lowell Herb Co, an organic cannabis farm based in Santa Barbara, CA, and celebrated for its premium organic cannabis products. Signage at the café designed as historical artifacts says Lowell Herb Co was founded in 1909, but that’s a marketing bluff; the company actually started in 2017.
The design brainchild of brothers/nightlife phenoms Mark and Jonnie Houston of Houston Hospitality, the Lowell's open ground-floor plan, a garden's-worth of indoor plants, and a roomy upstairs outdoor space reinforce air and room and light; the decor's herb-centric theme is backed up at tables and on the walls, where you're surrounded by images of various cannabis heroes from Hunter S Thompson to... Frank Sinatra?
Estanislao said plans for the café began a few years before the legalization that made the restaurant possible. “The idea has been four years in the making,” she said. “The application process and the building, finding the perfect place for doing what we wanted to do—it’s very, very much a work in progress. We wanted to know, how do you bridge the gap between cannabis sales and hospitality? We’re still trying to figure it out.”
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Part of that self-education will include customer education: Estanislao said some of Lowell’s wait staff will act as “flower hosts,” telling customers about cannabis products on Lowell’s menu—performing much the same informative function as a sommelier schooling diners about a fine wine. The wine-bar esthetic further maintains that customers pay a $20 “tokage fee” if they bring their own cannabis, much like a wine bar charges extra if you BYO.
The Lowell’s cannabis menu has a lot to appreciate: “Quicks” and “Eighth Packs,” two categories of pre-rolled smokes, are available in sativa, indica or hybrid ($55 for 3.5 grams, an eighth of an ounce). THC levels go from a mild 14 percent to a more robust 23 percent. “Quarter Packs” offer the same THC punch range, just in a bigger size ($85 for 7 grams, a quarter ounce). In a culinary context, these might be considered the appetizers, compared to other offerings on the menu. Cannabis concentrates, sold by the gram, kick it up a notch for a main course.
Make that several notches.
The Lowell is partnering with 710 Labs, a famed Colorado-based maker of concentrates and pesticide-free, small-batch cannabis. Among 710 products at the Lowell, you’ll find Blueberry Haze Ice Water Hash, billed as “a creative and euphoric hybrid” (74.5 percent THC, $105), and the Sundae Driver Live Rosin, a “solventless, budder-like wax for a calming and mellow effect” (a jaw-dropping 76.7 percent THC, $150). (Cash required for cannabis purchases.)
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If it’s food you want, the Lowell offers a panoramic un-infused menu of salads (kale, chicory, mixed greens); sandwiches (grilled cheese, chicken, pulled pork and turkey wraps); and upscale bar snacks (from French fries to Brussel sprouts and turnips). “We have healthy options and fun comfort foods like fried mac and cheese bites, and some really fun desserts,” Estanislao said. “We run the gamut, but it’s not just munchy stoner food.” (No alcohol license yet, but Estanislao said they’re pursuing one for wine and beer.)
The 220-seat restaurant opens making the effort to be a good neighbor. Since not everyone embraces the herb, the Lowell accommodates the WeHo neighborhood with an extensive air-ventilation system that scrubs and filters air before recirculating it outside.
Eventually, wine and beer will be in a location separate from smokers, she said. Restaurant staff would monitor customers who’ve had too much of a good thing, Estanislao said. “There’s security on the premises 24/7, and we made sure that our neighbors know that. And we’ll promote rideshares. We’ll always err on the side of caution. We’ve taken a lot of precautions. We want to do the right thing.”
It’s also about doing the right thing by the tax base. As the first business to combine a restaurant with herb consumption, the Lowell is at the thin end of the cannabis-economy wedge whose impact on California will likely be considerable. According to the Green Market Report, a cannabis industry monitor, state cannabis sales revenue is expected to top $15 billion a year—more than Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington combined.
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The Lowell is something of a canary in the coal mine for West Hollywood, a city within Los Angeles county, and one with a tradition of tolerance and invention. The Lowell is a part of a West Hollywood pilot program meant to determine the viability of cannabis consumption in public spaces; seven other similar businesses are set to open elsewhere in the city in 2020, including an edibles consumption lounge, a spa and a VR gaming room.
All of which makes the Lowell Café and West Hollywood as similar test cases for the whole country—a nation whose ricocheting from one crisis to another could make the Lowell café business model one to follow.
“People are ready for something like this,” Estanislao said. “For sure there’s been a call for it, we’ve seen that in just three days. There’s a line outside right now, but there was a line outside at eight AM on opening day. I think people are looking for... a good time, to get away from the news and whatnot. I think we’re providing a wonderful environment for that.”
Michael Eric Ross writes from Los Angeles on pop culture, politics, film and other subjects. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, Medium, PopMatters, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, msnbc.com, Salon, and other publications.