On the surface, the Lowell Cafe is like any other popular Hollywood hot spot. The sidewalk out front is flanked with a long line of people waiting to talk to intimidating bouncers in black. The valet-only parking lot is a sea of confusion and fancy cars. The decor inside includes such hipster-approved items as refurbished old street lamps, sixty-year-old imported olive trees, and a selfie station for guests to snap themselves in front of a vintage neon sign that says “Drugs”.
The menu includes buzzwords like gluten-free, vegan and organic, and the investor list includes A-list celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Mark Ronson, and Sarah Silverman. But what makes this different than other trendy restaurants isn’t just that it’s the first in America to legally and openly allow the smoking of cannabis, it’s that it truly embraces and celebrates cannabis culture.
The crowd inside was much more eclectic than you’ll find in your average hip Hollywood bistro. Eating alongside the standard WeHo trendy types were some older parents with adult children on vacation from middle America; an upscale African-American couple on a date were seated next to what seemed to be an off-duty porn star falling out of her top; a group dressed like extras from a Lil Nas X video were next to a preppy, older gay couple in blazers; a young couple on holiday from Finland was across from a couple of Malibu moms. Despite the outward differences, there was an overwhelming vibe of camaraderie and chillness in the space.
Marijuana has long had a beautiful ability to bring people from different social circles together, but these classic stoner culture markers of sharing and karma are often lost in the new commercial world of legal cannabis. The walls of the bathroom were collaged in photos of celebrities smoking weed, and I was drawn to a photo of Seth Rogen and Snoop Dogg: two outwardly opposite men, united by a giant blunt.
In high school, where kids love to splinter apart into cliques, it was the “stoners” who were ambassadors to every social circle. Hidden away somewhere at every party, you’d find a goth kid, a cowboy, a punk, a rapper, a prep and a hippie all passing a joint together. At its best, cannabis is like a smokey United Colors of Benetton ad, bringing together people of different cultures and colors around a plant we all celebrate. When the man at the neighboring table offered me a puff of his bespoke banana leaf rolled blunt, I felt that uniquely inclusive energy again. Afterall, I’ve never been in a typical restaurant and had someone at another table offer me a bite of their steak.
Because of confusing and often contradictory cannabis laws in California, purchases for food must remain separate from cannabis, and no alcohol is served on premises. There are two servers who visit your table after you sit, one for (non-medicated) food and drinks, and a “flower host” who handles all the cannabis orders. She’s also there to act as a sort of sommelier to guide you toward the right products for your tastes. Her first question was, “Have you ever smoked California weed before?” California is known for its powerful flower, and it’s a smart way to “weed out” inexperienced tourists and make sure they don’t overdo it.
The flower menu is laid out like a cocktail menu and offers a wide variety of products from pre-rolls, drinks and edible treats, to dabs and concentrates with bottle-service-like prices. Everything has a THC percentage next to it, much like craft beers with their APV numbers, so you can order to your tolerance. They provide complimentary rolling papers, filters and matches on each table if you choose to roll your own joint, as well as an “appetizer” plate for you to break up your flower on. They also offer gear to rent, such as pipes and bongs. When I asked the server why they didn’t list a dab rig even though they offer concentrates, she implied smartly that they do have them available for use, but if you don’t already know you need it, then you probably don’t need it.
The food is also carefully curated by chef Andrea Drummer. They offer a variety of organic “farm fresh” options that seem in line with the more crunchy, environmentally conscious aspects of classic cannabis culture. There are salads, sandwiches, snacks and desserts for those with a sweet tooth, but at distinctly Hollywood prices. The fries are one of the cheaper and more popular options, and I smelled their deliciously warm scent as they were placed on lots of tables around us. My dining companion Alanna Santini ordered the vegan Bahn Mi sandwich, one of their many vegan options. Her review was glowing for a tough Brooklyn transplant. She said, ”It was good! The cauliflower held up. I mean, it’s not meat meat, but it really held up.” I ordered the turkey wrap, which had a surprisingly delightful crunch of potato chips inside, though it was a bit bland. I was surprised by the lack of available salt and pepper, but was still utterly satisfied and had zero complaints, because being a little stoned makes all food instantly and amazingly delicious.
The design is also delightfully thoughtful. Around the perimeter of the outdoor smoking patio are large steam-punk looking suction vents that pull the air into a nearly silent air purification system. This not only prevents the surrounding neighborhood from drowning in the smell of weed, it also keeps you from sitting in a cloud of your neighbor’s heavy indica dabs when you’re there for a light sativa and coffee. There’s also a “living wall” inside, comprised mostly of air-purifying plants surrounding Lowell’s wooden, rustic business bull logo. Historical black and white photos hanging around the space that recall cannabis prohibition, and celebrate its end. They also have free wifi, and plan to be a space for people to work during the day once the crowd drawn purely to the novelty and newness wanes.
The man at the table next to me was also there for the first time and said he loved “the food and especially the atmosphere.” His friend, who lives in the neighborhood, had already been to the cafe four times in the single week it had been open. Both of them worked in different aspects of the cannabis industry and spoke about the potential of the cafe. This is a place where they could have working lunches with blunts instead of martinis, without the social shame or stigma that the choice somehow makes them less legitimate businessmen. It’s a space that takes cannabis use out of the shadows and puts it in a bright, open-spaced restaurant patio.
Though a trendy WeHo cafe selling blunts alongside twenty dollar kale salads may seem a bit frivolous, in the broader goals of decriminalization, clemency and equity in the industry, normalizing cannabis use is an essential first step. The Lowell Cannabis Cafe is doing more than just providing a hip place for tourists to smoke some pot while snacking on yummy vegan treats, it’s offering a space for cannabis culture to thrive and grow.