Aesthetically speaking, Lowell Cafe is like any other West Hollywood restaurant: the nachos are vegan, the outdoor patio is lined with live plant walls, and the dappled sunlight sets customers up for a perfect boomerang of them ripping a bong.
Stylized as Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Cafe but also referred to as Lowell Cafe, the restaurant is the first of its kind in the United States. Part dispensary and part eatery, guests choose from an extensive menu of pre-rolled joints, ounces of flower, vape pods, and dabs. Customers can also snack on a variety of dishes designed to compliment the inevitable munchies. It’s almost like visiting a gastropub, but instead of splitting fries and sipping whatever beer’s on tap, you can smoke whatever flower is in season.
“You’re entering the world of post-cannabis prohibition,” the press release for the cafe promised.
When I arrived at the cafe on Tuesday afternoon, the line of walk-in hopefuls was already wrapped around the block.
All guests, regardless of whether or not they consume cannabis products on-site, must be over 21 years old. At the door, a bouncer with a tablet scanned my ID, which was added to an internal database used for cannabis purchases. After being seated, a Flower Host stopped by to give us the rundown. Instead of checking my ID when I later ordered weed, the host checked her tablet for proof of age.
Because regulated cannabis is a legislative nightmare, Lowell Cafe is actually two different businesses. Under California’s current laws, cannabis lounges like Lowell Cafe aren’t allowed to sell food or beverages, so the front patio facing the street is a basic, run-of-the-mill eatery that serves food but can’t sell weed. The interior and enclosed back patio are 420-friendly areas where patrons can order food from the restaurant, buy cannabis products, and consume it. The restaurant, which serves food, beverages, and as soon as it secures its license, wine, is a separate entity from the dispensary.
Basically, as West Hollywood’s community and legislative affairs manager John Leonard told Eater LA, there are “two separate businesses on two separate premises.”
“Patrons in the cannabis consumption area are allowed to order food from the adjacent restaurant,” he continued. “And the food from the adjacent restaurant is delivered to the consumption area.”
That whole set-up made ordering both weed and food pretty confusing. Guests order from two separate servers, one for food and one for weed. Likened to a sommelier, the Flower Host — the person serving weed — explains the various products, suggests food and flower pairings, and shows you how to use the paraphernalia available to rent.
This is where the confusion comes in — since there was one server for food and a separate one for weed, figuring out who was staffing each overlapping section in the hectic restaurant seemed like a guessing game.
Choosing weed can also be a ride. Lowell Cafe’s cannabis selection is packaged in an intimidating leather-bound menu similar to wine menus at fancy restaurants. The cafe is a fully stocked dispensary, and its selection includes pre-roll packs ranging from six to 14 joints per package, edibles with up to 100 milligrams of THC, and an eighth of flower. And like buying alcohol in bars or restaurants, expect a steep up-charge; eighths will cost you $55 to $65. Patrons can also bring their own weed for a “toke-age” fee of $20, like a corkage fee in a traditional restaurant.
For the most part, buying a pricey bottle of wine or an elaborate cocktail is justifiable because the party is likely to finish it before leaving. Only the strongest of stoners can finish off an eighth of weed or 14 whole joints in the recommended one and a half hours sitting at Lowell Cafe. Thanks to municipal regulations, guests can’t take the leftover weed home with them, which can lead to some absurd speed hits in an effort to finish products, and will inevitably lead to wasted weed or upset guests.
Granted, it didn’t seem like the Flower Hosts stopped anyone from sneaking unfinished weed into pockets as diners paid their bills before leaving.
I told our first Flower Host that I tended to stay away from THC-intense indica strains because of my tendency to cry in public when I consume them. The Flower Hosts’ familiarity with cannabis varies. The first one I spoke to recommended whatever pre-roll had the highest amount of THC, but another, a former weed farmer who goes by Circa Suicide, told me that first time visitors should try to stick with low doses in case they get anxious.
My friend Rebecca and I ended up splitting a pre-roll sativa joint called Kushberry Cheesecake, a 21.88 percent THC joint that cost $20. (A similarly fruity sativa pre-roll with a similar THC content, for reference, goes for about $10 through marijuana delivery services. Many dispensaries in Los Angeles will also toss in a pre-roll for free with the purchase of an eighth.) The menu described it as “Invigorating, Active” and it yielded the kind of high that makes the world more visually interesting while still letting you think clearly. It’s also the kind of body high that motivates you to demolish a plate of vegan nachos at an alarming, but almost admirable pace.
I was worried that once I started smoking, I’d be overwhelmed by the cafe. I’ve visited Amsterdam’s coffeeshops before, and while most of my experiences were lovely, I have felt suffocated by the smoky air, dim lighting, and crowded spaces. I can get pretty paranoid when I smoke weed that contains just THC and no CBD, but I felt at peace lazily passing off that joint. At times, the tightly packed tables were a touch claustrophobic and a particularly lengthy cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams felt like it was four decibels too loud, but the “Invigorating, Active” part of this high never felt overbearing. The air inside wasn’t excessively smoky, either, thanks to the cafe’s ventilation system.
“I would bring my parents here, I would bring my partners here,” Circa Suicide said as I snacked on what may have been the best burger I’ve eaten in L.A. (That might have been the weed deciding that, though.) “I would even bring my coworkers here. It’s a really nice, neutral vibe.”
Circa Suicide added that since not everyone does well getting high in such an overstimulating environment, she recommends not smoking at all if you’re anxious about being anxious. If you do decide to partake, take it slow.
“Take one hit, put it out, give it ten minutes,” she said, explaining how first-time smokers should try it out in a public setting like Lowell Cafe. “You can always go back in for one more. If you’re feeling weird, we’re here to bring water and talk to you.”
At times, the Flower Hosts seemed more like well-meaning parental units checking on an after school hang than typical budtenders. When the couple next to Rebecca and I fell into a couch lock, punctuated by bursts of giggles, a Flower Host stopped by and offered them bottled water. When I put out the last of the joint in the Lowell Farms-branded ashtray, a food server asked if I wanted any other munchies-quelling snacks off the menu. Circa Suicide recommended pairing the ice cream sundae with a Banana OG pre-roll before leaving to teach a first-time smoker how to roll a joint.
Overall, the first public American cannabis cafe didn’t exceed high expectations, but that’s more the fault of regulatory confusion than poor planning. On one hand, Lowell Cafe is just a public place to smoke weed. On the other, it’s also pioneering the way American culture approaches consuming cannabis in public. Considering the exhaustive list of limitations Lowell Cafe had to work with — separating businesses, a ban on serving cannabis-infused food, and state laws forbidding the sale of alcohol and cannabis on the same premise — Lowell Cafe managed to pull off an impressive blend of bar culture and weed.
But regulating weed like alcohol also holds back the cannabis industry. Laws that work for alcohol, like not allowing patrons to bring home extra product, don’t make sense when applied to weed. That, though, is in the hands of municipal governments to reform.
Lowell Cafe’s social impact is complicated as well. Paying for overpriced weed and taking the afternoon off to get baked is an immense privilege. As L.A. Taco noted earlier this year, greater Los Angeles’ booming marijuana industry is promising, but it leaves convicted felons with non-violent drug charges behind. People of color have been, and still are disproportionately incarcerated for it. Part of the application process to secure a spot as one of eight approved cannabis consumption lounges involved taking “social equity” into account, which includes prison reform and minority inclusion. In its FAQ, Lowell Cafe says it gives “special employment consideration” to recently pardoned, non-violent cannabis offenders. But like L.A. Taco says, “being given priority to work minimum wage or low paying jobs at the bottom of a billion-dollar business feels like too-little-too-late.”
I left Lowell Cafe satiated by delicious food and gently toasted, not quite baked enough to want to take a walk. Over 750 people visited during its opening day, according to a Lowell Cafe spokesperson. While it wasn’t revolutionary, smoking on a lively outdoor patio certainly beat the “prohibition”-era experience of hotboxing a friend’s grandpa’s car and messily ordering pizza. And it’s paving the way for the not only West Hollywood’s cannabis consumption lounges, but the many sure to pop up as legalized states figure out how to regulate it.
Lowell Cafe sits at the awkward crossroad of legalized weed and clumsy regulation — the marijuana industry is moving forward, but the government can’t keep up. At least the food is good while the rest of us wait.