I spent last week in Los Angeles and had a chance to meet up with some LA friends for a drink. While my first thought was to meet at Seven Grand, I realized that there are still bars in LA I have yet to try and so I should take the opportunity to try something new. When I heard about a new speakeasy-style place called Varnish hidden away in the back of Cole’s restaurant downtown, I knew I had found my bar for the trip.
Hidden away is right. From the outside, Cole’s looks like any other downtown bar/restaurant but there’s no outward indication that anything special is going on there. Upon entering you’ll see a pretty typical place, with a bar to the right and tables straight ahead. But if you continue walking toward the back of the restaurant you’ll see a nondescript door with a small picture of a cocktail glass on it. Herein lies Varnish. The door is unlocked at 8:00pm and you can walk through into a very different sort of place from Cole’s up front, decorated in the turn-of-the-century style that’s de rigueur for speakeasies.
I’m a sucker for this type of thing so the this much alone would have sold me on Varnish but the real achievement was the bar. The bottle selection visible on the shelves was comprehensive and the bar area itself was amazing. Ice stations filled with dishes of fresh citrus, berries, and herbs; round-bottom flasks filled with juices and syrups; misters for absinthe and rose water rinses… All this made for an impressive display that somehow didn’t clash with the decor of the rest of the room.
The bartenders were fantastic as well. I’ve never waited so long for a single drink to be made but I’ve also never enjoyed the wait so much. They didn’t have table service on the Monday evening we went so we ordered at the bar and watched the bartenders construct our drinks with meticulous care. The spirits were measured carefully, stirred thoroughly, and allowed to chill in the mixing glass for a bit before being strained into our glasses. The ice used for mixing was hand-cracked from large pieces kept behind the bar and drinks served on the rocks were presented with a single large chunk of ice chipped to fit perfectly into the glass.
A short menu of half a dozen cocktails was presented along with the “Bartender’s Choice” option, where they will mix something up based on your stated preferences. I opted for this, asking for something interesting with Rye and tending toward the bitter and complex. I was presented with a *Little Italy*, a drink I was unfamiliar with, made with rye, sweet vermouth, and Cynar. The bartender took the time to explain the ingredients and their origins, and was generally very willing to talk about what he was doing with me and others standing around the bar as we ordered subsequent rounds.
I sound like I’m really gushing here and while it’s true that I was very impressed by the entire package, not all was perfect. The music started out with great 1920s-era jazz but this was soon replaced by a live piano player. In theory this could have worked very well with the theme but the piano was much too loud for the small space, even to the point where conversation was difficult. Good idea, but a flawed implementation. I don’t know if this volume is normal or not but moving the upright piano against a wall would help to dampen the sound and would probably improve things quite a bit.
An article about Varnish appeared in the New York Times last June and it’s been mentioned in a number of other places as well, so plan your visit accordingly. I understand it can get pretty crowded on weekends but it was pretty manageable on the Monday night we went. Varnish is a collaboration between 213, who own some other great bars in downtown LA, and the minds behind NYC’s Milk and Honey.