Lowell Cafe occupies a low-profile corner lot in West Hollywood, across from a synagogue, one block away from a Ralph’s grocery store. Just a few streets away, on Sunset Boulevard, there’s an In-N-Out Burger that’s usually packed with folks who have taken advantage of California’s thriving legal weed market. But now, instead of getting baked and ordering a Double-Double, they can head to Lowell Cafe, where people 21 and over can eat food and smoke weed at the same time — legally.
When we pass through the wrought-iron gates on La Brea on opening night, security checks our ID. A host leads us to a table at the back of the lounge, past gleeful-looking diners sharing french fries, bongs and joints. The room is warm and homey, with a gleaming copper bar, exposed brick walls, and simple wooden tables, arranged bistro-style. Ferns flutter in a lightly circulating breeze — despite the roomful of folks puffing and passing, there’s no noticeable haze, thanks to a high-end air filtration system.
In accordance with California’s cannabis laws, no alcohol is sold at Lowell Cafe. However, the weed menu is thrilling in its size and scope, with 14 pages of bud, concentrates, edibles, vapes, and accessories. Tantalizingly named eighths of flower like Orange Creamsicle and Sugar Kiss are listed alongside Black Gelato and Kushberry Cheesecake pre-rolls, infused Keef Cola drinks, and bewilderingly titled concentrates like Watermelon Short Cook Live Rosin and Ghost Hulk #25 Persy Sauce. Each section of the menu includes an estimate of onset and duration times depending on how you choose to partake: Edibles are “incredibly long lasting,” and concentrates bear the warning “Highly potent. For experts only.” Visitors can bring their own cannabis, as long as they pay a $20 “tokeage” fee. Smoking accessories from brands like Puffco, PAX and Summerland Ceramics are available to rent for a fee.
Tableside “flower service” is on hand to help you navigate the extensive cannabis menu. Our flower host for the evening, Chantelle, came by her expertise when she worked at a dispensary in Colorado. “I’m much more of a smoker than a drinker,” she tells us. “And I’d much rather serve cannabis than alcohol. I couldn’t be happier about working here.”
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Does she have any concerns about dealing with customers who get too high? Chantelle says that, as a bartender, she was certified through TIPS, a program that trains restaurant workers to prevent guests from over-consuming alcohol. She says she’s confident that she’ll be able to recognize any potential problems with people getting uncomfortably stoned.
To recommend a strain, Chantelle asks guests what type of smoker they are, and what their tolerance level is. She helps novice consumers choose lower-THC options — and if you have Babe the Blue Ox-level tolerance, she can direct you to a highly potent offering that will hit your sweet pot spot.
We order a Black Gelato pre-roll (1 gram for $20) and a Keef Cola root beer to share (10 mg THC, $10), and Chantelle rings us up on a handheld tablet. A friendly server, Giancarlo, approaches the table and asks if we’re ready to order dinner. Everybody here is super amiable; smiles and twinkly eyes abound. There’s an unexpected feeling of harmoniousness for a busy restaurant on opening night.
Executive Chef Andrea Drummer appears from the kitchen as we go through the farm-to-table menu. All of her dishes are designed as shareable plates to pair with the heady cannabis list. Drummer, who is also a partner in the restaurant, apologizes for her slightly hoarse voice; she’s been giving interviews since 8 a.m., she says. Nevertheless, she looks serene — incredibly so, given the circumstances. Has she encountered any obstacles in opening the country’s first legal cannabis restaurant? “Just timing,” she says. “We’ve had some delays, and had to push back our opening date. But that happens with every restaurant. So the fact that we’re the first cannabis cafe — I’ll take it. That would happen with a new McDonald’s.”
Of course, there are unique obstacles here. When the City of West Hollywood granted Lowell Farms and seven other businesses licenses to operate cannabis consumption lounges in 2017, the company faced legal hurdles; current regulations in California don’t allow license holders to sell food or drinks on the premises of a cannabis retail establishment. Lowell’s answer to the dilemma was a creative workaround, separating Lowell Cafe into three sections: a street-facing area where diners can’t consume cannabis, but can order food and non-alcoholic drinks, and an indoor lounge and outdoor garden that allow cannabis smoking, vaping, and edible consumption. Food and beverages are prepared in a kitchen that’s considered a separate business from the cannabis consumption area, so patrons in the smoking and vaping sections can order food from the adjacent restaurant.
But there are unique advantages, too. Drummer is quick to give credit to her kitchen staff for the smooth operations. Lowell Cafe’s culinary director, Mason Royal, cut his teeth as executive chef of Trejo’s Tacos. The 24-year-old chef has been a godsend, she says, and together, they’re running a new kind of restaurant.
“The energy is, not only are we changing the perception of cannabis consumption, we’re changing the perception of kitchen culture,” says Drummer. “Everyone is so chill. Everyone loves coming to work. No one is being beaten over the head or yelled at, all the things you typically see in a kitchen.”
As Chef Drummer prepares to head back to the kitchen to oversee the end of dinner service, we ask her how it feels to make weed history. “My soul hasn’t settled back into my skin yet,” she laughs. “This place… it feels so lived in, it feels like us. I’m in awe that I’m the first of something so monumental.”
With perfect timing, Giancarlo reappears to take our food order. My friend and I go hog wild, our appetites fueled by the Black Gelato. We order vegan nachos, sticky tamarind wings, crispy chicken and vegan banh mi sandwiches, and a Cobb salad. The couple directly next to us is munching quietly, sitting side by side, occasionally re-lighting a joint. A woman at a nearby table is engrossed in a book as she eats — no cannabis is visible on her table, but she looks satiated.
When our dinner arrives, we eat with abandon, trading bites in between puffs on our preroll. The music is just right for the mood — a mellow mix of FKJ, XXYYXX, Hiatus Kaiyote. We’re happy, feeling a kind of communion with everyone here, eating and smoking together, embraced and held by this moment in weed history.
Floating through the cafe in search of a restroom a half hour later, I ask for directions. A flower host named Elyse (she says she’s one of five on staff at the cafe: “Every Elyse is a stoner”) leads me outside, through the parking lot, to the restrooms at the back of the building. As we walk, Elyse points out a possum peeping over the fence at us. Seems like everyone’s trying to get in to check out the joint.
When I make my way back to our table, the couple at the next table is just getting up. They’ve been so quiet all evening, I have to ask them: did they enjoy themselves? The man’s face blossoms with a slow smile, as he tips his hat back so he can look me in the eye. “It was a dream come true,” he says, his cheeks tight and glowing.
As we wind down our meal with a gooey ice cream sundae topped with a perfectly stoney brûléed banana chip, Chantelle passes by once more to offer us a “last call for cannabis.” The cafe closes at 10 p.m. We’ve smoked and eaten everything we possibly can, so we nod goodnight to the staff as they polish dab rigs and bongs to set up for service the next day, and happily drift off into the warm L.A. night.