Is LA’s Lowell Cafe the Cannabis Restaurant of the Future?

Jesse Friedman
Oct 9 · 10 min read

Seated in the smoking section

Lowell Farm’s newly opened cannabis café takes two great tastes and puts them together. Like peanut butter and chocolate, cannabis and food fit hand in glove, right? How hard can it be to merge a dispensary and restaurant into one cohesive business? As it turns out, pretty hard.

Entry to West Hollywood’s Lowell Cafe is like entering any other dispensary: 21+ ID’s are checked at the door, scanned and recorded. Then we’re handed off to our host, who showed us to a lovely two-top and instructed that our reservation was good for 90 minutes.

The restaurant is green — very green. Plants are everywhere, hanging off living walls, overflowing from pots on shelves above the bar with living leaves in every nook and cranny. Their use is two fold: besides the modern opium den meets designer steam-punk curio greenhouse vibe of the space, the plants provide natural air filtration for the blooms of smoke pluming up around us.

The space is roughly split down the middle, with half outside on a large, bright patio. Two olive trees sit at its center, with giant HVAC air ducts lining the patio to suck-in any stray smoke from escaping the permitted space. Clearly, they’re making a big effort to be good neighbors.

Parallel service

Our first (of two) servers approached us and began a lengthy explainer of their options for cannabis. The whole experience — especially their cannabis service — is a series of small and not-so-small compromises to navigate evolving cannabis laws and regulations. Lowell Café is breaking new ground with its space, and the strain of trying to create something new occasionally shines through.

Cannabis and food services are each handled by our two servers. Our cannabis waiter takes orders and payment for cannabis, and a “food” waiter takes food orders. The cannabis menu is split between a variety of options, some from Lowell, and selections from other high quality cannabis growers in Southern California.

The cannabis menu sections include most everything you’d expect, with a lot of jargon to take in.Vaporizer cartridges, single and multi packs of joints, 1/8th ounce jars of flower, edibles and concentrates. The menu is well organized, easy to read, with concise and descriptive flavor notes for each strain and expectations for effect. Whoever authored this menu put in a lot of time to make it easy to understand and a good starter for the uninitiated in cannabis.

A brief sidebar on Cannabis effect: With alcohol, booze is booze. The effect of a shot of vodka vs a beer vs wine is all essentially the same — only the speed at which your drink/process it varies, as does what is going along with it. But the effect is essentially the same. In cannabis, this isn’t the case at all — different strains contain different canaboids and terpenes (which also impact flavor and aroma) to different effects. Sativa strains are often classified as stimulating, daytime strains, while Indicas are more of a sedative. However, your milage may very, as everybody processes cannabis differently. Communicating and educating about these effects is one of the challenges cannabis is enthusiastically challenging where it splits away from traditional bar service.

We placed an order for a single joint of Kushberry Cheesecake, grown by LA Kush. The menu advertised it as being 21.88% THC and with “invigorating & active” effects. She rang us up, took my cash, and returned a few minutes later with our joint, wrapped in full retail packaging along side a book of matches. A busser dropped a heavy, branded ash tray on the table, and we were ready to light up.

I’m old enough to remember when smoking cigarettes was allowed in restaurants, but it still feels incredibly foreign to strike a match inside. The joint was just OK — it was poorly rolled, so it burned unevenly, and smoking it was a contract battle with airflow and burn rate. The cannabis was great, however — heady, cerebral and social, without being overtly chatty and verbal like some Sativa-dominant strains. The joint being delivered in full retail packaging also felt a bit off, and revealed some of the cracks in how cannabis sales are permitted directly impact the experience.

Because the cannabis sales are handled separately, it’s less like you’re getting a bespoke bar-like experience, and more like using a local delivery service. This is part of the regulatory straightjacket that Lowell finds itself in; it has an amazing space and good selection, but can’t fully engage with its cannabis service to it’s best ability. Guests can’t smell flowers to see what clicks with their tastes, or order smaller grams of cannabis to try a few flavors. No dab bars (like some onsite consumption dispensaries in San Francisco offer), so smelling fresh flowers, no bespoke joint rolling. It’s full of missed opportunities for education and engaging the senses.

But these complaints and criticisms don’t hold back an enthusiastic staff from helping navigate the choices and find something they think you’ll enjoy. The staff are working hard, but has one hand tied behind their back.

Don’t call them munchies

Wrapping up our joint, we were ready to eat. It’s important to note that none of the food contains cannabis, THC, CBD or otherwise (though there are edibles, they are only on the cannabis menu and come packaged for resale like all of the weed options).

First to the table were the Animal Style Corn Dogs. $15 Mini corndogs topped with an elote-inspired corn topping. The corndogs were slightly soggy, and the corn with super rich, having been premixed with the traditional sour cream-mayo toppings, creating a sweet-savory kind of paste. An unforced error on what is a great idea for a “munchies” dish.

Also from the fryer, the $18 Crispy Chicken Sandwich. Well seasoned and well fried, the sandwich was our favorite thing we ate. From a survey of the dining room, maybe the most popular item on the menu. The kale slaw added a nice bit of texture and green to a generously seasoned crispy chicken thigh. Great bun too. Sadly, the fries along side it were a mess — strongly tough, flavorless, even high from our joint we barely touched them.

Finally a light finish to the meal, the $17 Chicory Salad. Healthy eating and getting high can live hand in hand, but this salad isn’t it. A few pieces of undressed endive and apple onto of a generic handful of spring greens. A sad flavorless bummer of a healthy meal.

Overall, the kitchen at Lowell really harshed my mellow for the cafe. The menu is pretty typical brewpub fare that doesn’t seem to take much inspiration from the cannabis it’s served alongside. No pairing recommendations for cannabis and food together, and sloppy execution of expected dishes.

Full, but unfulfilled, we turned our attention back to the cannabis menu, to explore what mood-improving options Lowell had to offer back on the green side of the equation.

Puff puff pass

So once you’ve got your cannabis, you’ve got to turn it into vape or smoke (or food, but that’s another show) to consume it. Before you go reaching for a swiss-army knife and an apple, the back page of Lowell cafe’s menu has a few options for you to consider.

Rolling papers are free. Bespoke pipes are $15 to rent for the session, a bong is $30. There are more expensive options if you want a “custom gravity bong” or “hookah inspired bong” that we didn’t see. You are also welcome to bring your own piece from home for free, an option that seemed pretty common looking around the space, especially since rentals will quickly drive up the price of the meal and session. You can also bring outside cannabis in to enjoy, but there is a $20 “Tokage” fee for the table (nicely one fee covers the whole table, a relatively fair price IMHO.)

We settled on purchasing some of the 710 Labs concentrates for dabs, which come with a “free” rental of Puff Co Peak, a new smart dabbing device. Instead of something your hippy uncle made in the hills of Mendocino, the Puff Co Peak looks like how people would vape in Blade Runner. It’s a small black and glass minimalist object with sharp angles and understated clean lines.

To use, click the bottom and it lights up a color coded light like an Amazon Echo. When it’s hot, it buzzes like an iPhone. Load a small drop of concentrate in the ceramic bowl, cover with a glass cap — with a very clever integrated carb to regulate airflow — and hit the small glass water pipe built into the top. It quickly fills with a milky white vapor and them empties out — just like a small classic bong hit. But the concentrate is 75% THC, and much more intense in flavor and effect. It’s delicious, but can come on like being hit by a THC bus for those with no tolerance. Still, it feels like the first new wave of the future of cannabis.

We tried two 710 labs concentrate offerings: first, Blueberry Haze Ice Water Hash. A mouth full of a name, it’s listed as 74.54% THC with “A creative and euphoric hybrid hash with a deliciously fruity taste.” Again, whoever wrote the tasting notes for this menu, great work. It’s fruity like a great cup of Ethiopian coffee, with a heady distracting high that leaves you constantly slamming trying to think of “what is that word?!”

Next was Ghost Hulk #25 which lab tested at 76.46% THC and has “notes of strawberry mixed with diesel” The hybrid Indica breeding is clear — it’s far more sedative but with a great fruit flavor. The Puff Co Peak highlighted both nicely, as we played with the temperature options for the best extraction. It’s a fun toy and now I want one for home. With one last wisp of white smoke, our 90 minutes was up and we were ushered back into the bright daylight of the real world.

Let me be blunt

I left the experience feeling decidedly mixed. It’s a new restaurant working out it’s bugs, and things are sure to evolve. Like the food menus at Alamo Drafthouse, I find myself wondering why the choices seem oblivious to the unique challenges and opportunities of the non-traditional restaurant space. They’re essentially creating a new type of restaurant service that hasn’t really existed before. There are some parallels to bar service, but the metaphors quickly fall down. There are areas that clearly can be improved for the future: better train whoever is managing the fry station to do a better job making crispy munchies for the waiting crowd. And build the menu more towards the loading and smoking experience they want to sell the line of customers outside.

As for the Cannabis service, I’m sure there they are far more restricted by evolving laws. Currently it operates almost more like a dispensary delivery service that only covers the interior of one restaurant. More sensory experiences please! I want to smell my cannabis, feel inspired by the aromas and options. I’d love to see a dab bar (sold by the dab, like SF offers in a few places) with chances to smell and discuss the options with your “dabtender.” And for equipment: please build the equipment rental into the cannabis prices. Let customers experiment and try new things, and explore the amazing variety of cannabis experiences that can be enjoyed in this gorgeous green space.

Jesse Friedman

Written by

Now wearing shorts in LA. New thing: Formally of SF and Almanac Beer Co.

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