Sunday, April 12, 2009

Don't Tell Anyone: The Varnish

Can you keep a secret? It's a really good one. I've discovered a portal into another time and place, but I kind of want to keep it to myself. It's actually a tiny door in the back of Cole's downtown. You step inside, and are magically transported.

Cedd Moses, the guy behind the 213 group of bars downtown that includes the Broadway Bar, Golden Gopher, and Seven Grand, recently brought Cole's into that fold, transforming the century-old cafeteria from 'old' to 'retro' in a truly charming way. And in the back of Cole's, he built the Varnish, a 1920s speakeasy hidden in modern-day downtown.

Though few spots can really be secret these days in Los Angeles, you really do feel like you're in on something with the Varnish. The small windowless space is decorated with old traincar booths and dim lighting (the vibe matches that of the Edison, though much more intimate), and you could swear the music wafting through is coming from a shaky grammophone (more likely an iPod, but let's not talk about it). It's the kind of place that makes you second-guess wearing jeans to go out -- stockings with a seam running up the back of each leg might be more appropriate. And pincurls.

But while the vibe is quite impressive, what goes on at the bar is the thing here. There is fresh produce on ice in a glass case. There are beautiful bottles holding exotic spirits. There are laboratory flasks filled with liquids of all colors. The night when I visited, Marcos was our able bartender. All of us took him up on the 'bartender's choice', and he did not disappoint. We stood rapt as he meticulously concocted a whiskey drink with honey and lemon juice; a Pimm's cup with lots of cucumber and fresh mint; El Diablo, a zingy tequila drink with homemade ginger syrup, seltzer, and a float of scarlet framboise, and the night's winner, something amazing with ginger syrup and lots of fresh mint (muddled really well so the drink had a gorgeous pale green hue), and garnished with a chunk of candied ginger skewered on two toothpicks. Watching this Marcos at work is quite a treat. He mixes each cocktail with focus and perfectionism, then after giving it the most vigorous shaking I've ever seen, he pours it into its glass over a single giant block of ice (preferred over smaller ice cubes because they melt more slowly, preventing the dilution of these precious drinks), then garnishes beautifully and adds the signature metal straw.

Guys, this place is so special. You have to go. I'd recommend a weeknight, as it can get crowded on weekends. In order to avoid a line through the middle of Cole's, though, on busy nights they take your cell phone number and contact you when you've been let in -- civilized, no? So, get there. But please, don't tell anyone about it, ok?

The Varnish is at 118 E. Sixth St., at Main, Downtown.



  2. i know, i know! but it's so good! and i have a big mouth!

  3. Great. Now Nick knows about.

  4. We went here for Lar's bday. It was great! Now shut your mouth.

  5. Hi Tannaz,

    Very cool! :) Thanks for the thoughts on this place (I was curious but never dropped by yet).

    That amazing drink you mention - "something amazing with ginger syrup and lots of fresh mint" - is that its official name on the menu? :) Just checking. Thanks!

  6. went there last week and had some kind of concoction with cucumber, vermouth, and brandy. very aromatic. then i went told 10 people all about it.

  7. how do you find these things t-sizzle?? I went with ramos and had among other things a "chicago fizz" which involves straining an egg white into the drink. holy crap it was delicious!

  8. still like the Association next door better. Varnish makes me uncomfortable, from the line, to the doorman, to the upright seats, tiny tables, tiny booths, 20+ min wait for a drink, etc.

  9. exile kiss, my greatest regret is not finding out the name of that drink! just gives me an excuse to go back though =)

    and tom, i love this egg white business -- it's like fancy orange julius.

    and tony, i've yet to check out the association, but i experienced zero of the bad stuff you mentioned at the varnish. i think the key to this place (and any bar that's the new big thing), is to go early and to go on a weeknight. and i have to say -- what i've heard about the association makes me a little uncomfortable. it all seems so basic and boozy, and well, masculine -- am i man enough for this place?

  10. Hi Tannaz,

    Ah darn. :) OK, I'll just have to go there myself as well and find out the name of that drink (and try it :). Thanks.