The Varnish doesn’t have a signature cocktail.
You don’t need to when you’re arguably the most important cocktail bar of the decade or so old speakeasy- craft cocktail movement. It seems as if this hidden, but very well known Downtown Los Angeles and its chief mixologist Eric Alperin are to cocktail “best of” lists and awards what Meryl Streep is to the Oscars: they are always nominated and almost always win.
Things are no different again this year. The Varnish is one of four finalists for this week’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards in New Orleans (nobody ever drinks in that city…), in many ways the Oscars or James Beard Awards for the cocktail world. While the entire bar is up for World’s Best Cocktail Bar, Alperin is also one of four finalists for the premier American bartender.
With these expectations, wouldn’t you expect nothing short of drinking magnificence when you’re standing at The Varnish’s sparkling glass bottle backed bar or sitting snugly in one of the wood paneled vintage booths in the dark as night speakeasy room? You won’t be disappointed. The hype is fulfilled. At the same time, if you’re looking for the “wow factor” so in vogue these days (think The Bazaar, The Aviary, Booker & Dax…), this isn’t your place. Sip your high quality beverage and don’t be too loud. There aren’t any sideshow frills coming your way. Only the perfect Gin & Tonic, maybe with a slight evolution.
The background history and the quirks of The Varnish are very well documented. There might even be a Hollywood screenplay in the works about the rise of cocktails in America and the rise of Skid Row’s Sixth Street because of The Varnish (I’m only guessing about this).
The Varnish can be found inside an old closet in the rear of Cole’s, a venerable upscale diner-deli-bar considered the oldest restaurant in town. Founded back in 1908, it’s pretty much one of the only businesses or even landmarks in general that remain in Los Angeles from back then. It’s hard enough in this town to find something ten years old.
Cole’s is best known for its decades old tiff with another deli, Philippe’s, over who invented the French dip. Anyone who has sampled French dips at both knows it’s not even a contest. Philippe’s wins by a landslide, especially its lamb variation. Luckily, Cole’s French dip isn’t an indication of The Varnish’s drinks…right?
Cole’s location on Sixth Street isn’t exactly Rodeo Drive to put it lightly. My first time to The Varnish a few years ago happened to be my first visit to the Skid Row area, fully unaware of what that really meant. We were dressed in our Roaring 20’s best– flapper costumes for the ladies and vintage cocktail vests and slacks for us gentlemen. As we drove around the block looking for parking, we noticed a rare sight in Los Angeles: available street parking was everywhere.
Quickly we learned from the tents covering the sidewalks, there was a reason why. Off to the parking garage we went.
The area is certainly getting better, like much of Downtown Los Angeles. It’s not there yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. However, here is definitely a case of how one restaurant and bar can really make a difference on a block or two. Let’s give Cole’s and The Varnish a very deserving round of applause.
Once inside Cole’s, you can enjoy that French dip or actually some decent cocktails at the bar ever since Cedd Moses re-booted the menu in 2008 (for non-locals, Moses is essentially the Danny Meyer of Los Angeles, involved with almost everything in town and almost always succeeds with his usually very ambitious projects).
Shortly after renovating Cole’s, Moses opened The Varnish with New York cocktail titans Alperin and his mentor Sasha Petraske. Alperin and Petraske get the credit for starting the new speakeasy movement with Milk & Honey in New York, a member’s only craft cocktail speakeasy (the new re-incarnation of Milk & Honey is open to the public in a different location) that flipped a switch onto a concept that hasn’t faded one bit a decade later.
The Varnish was a brand new concept for most drinkers when it opened. Speakeasies? What are they? Quality cocktails? Not ordering from a menu? The quality and popularity has not waned since. If you’re not knocking on the closet door around the 7pm opening time, you’re risking a wait.
After knocking on that door with a little cocktail coupe image and a set of the house rules, a host will open it and inform you of the situation. Once (if) you’re led inside, you’ll see the impeccably dressed bartenders straight out of Bogart films.
The wooden banquettes are inspired by streetcars of the Roaring 20’s. You’ll even find old maps of the Los Angeles streetcar lines on the walls. Apparently people used public transportation once in Los Angeles.
Very soft candle lighting helps you somewhat recognize who you’re sitting with. You’ll think you’re with Claudette Colbert or Lionel Barrymore. A little bit of jazz softens the proceedings. So does a drink.
Alperin has many times explained how The Varnish could care less about the whole local, seasonal, and organic movement. They sure care about quality. They just aren’t driven to juice every rhubarb at the market when the time is ripe. At the bar you’ll find top tier spirit labels and a kitchen’s worth of fresh tinctures and juices. If an ingredient is in season, all the better. Then again, mole bitters are at its peak in January and July.
Cocktails arrive in magnificent classic antique glassware with vintage thick, ridged white paper napkins. I have to admit I have a collection at home of these from The Varnish. Very classy on my part?
Alperin and his crew are intensely into perfectly crafting the classics. Here is your place for the quintessential Sazerac or Collins. At the same time, The Varnish isn’t a dinosaur. They’re also into re-working the classics with subtle, influential tweaks. No liquid nitrogen tweaks, though.
Now, here’s the shocker: the drinks are terrific. Service matches the drinks.
Well, that’s not exactly breaking news for the nation’s cocktailing crowd. What’s always interesting for Los Angeles and curious drinkers everywhere is what do you actually drink at The Varnish? Really just a Sazerac? At the best cocktail bar in the country?
The menu is more than diminutive. There are just six choices, with five of them being meticulous renditions of cocktail classics. There is a Gibson, a Monte Carlo, and a Caipirinha. You might not know much about the “Wake Up Late” (Cognac, Gin, lemon, sugar, raspberries, soda), but you certainly have had many (inferior) Mai Tais. At The Varnish, the Mai Tai features both Demerara Rum and Jamaican Rum. You wouldn’t recognize it if all your Mai Tai history is bars in Maui or Kauai.
All cocktails are $13, a downright bargain for the drinks’ purity and meticulous composition compared to many of their peers. There is beer for $7 and wine for $10. I can’t tell you what the beer or wine is because it’s hard to imagine someone considering this in such a cocktail temple. After a few Gibsons, the $5 espresso might be nice (never complain about Intelligentsia’s prices again).
But, you might be wondering what was that sixth cocktail? That would be the “Bartender’s Choice, Allow Us” selection that nearly everyone opts for. Name your spirit or your flavor profile, or your favorite color, or favorite sports team, and the masters behind the stick go to work.
Recently, a “Cocktail à la Louisiane” was every bit on par with the stellar rendition at San Francisco’s Hard Water, except this version had a much more pronounced Absinthe flavor that was far more than a mere anise rinse. One Tequila based concoction, given the direction of “spice,” was a thrill with just the right amount of heat from Cholula hot sauce, tempered by lots of cucumber and fresh lime juice.
Stiff, brown drinks are top tier here, whether a regular Manhattan, or Bourbon, Benedictine, and dark cacao bitters over an over-sized, hand-cut rock.
Are the results perfect? Almost. My request for a Negroni variation brought a promising traditional version with a Champagne float. Let’s just say Champagne and bitter Italian liqueurs should stay separate next time. When bitter hits bubbly sweetness it’s not entirely peaceful. The whole table concurred.
Yes, a drink was sent back at The Varnish. Instead of criticizing the bartenders, let’s absolutely praise them for listening and concocting something far more to my liking. Great bars can make great drinks. The best bars do that with great hospitality.
What really seems to be the strong point for The Varnish interestingly is drinks with a smoky-honey profile. I can’t recall the honey drink’s name I had three years ago that was an absolute standout, but Petraske did invent the “Penicillin,” the most commonly found smoky-honey profile drink, for Comme ça in West Hollywood.
My most recent visit started with “Mezcal” as the instruction. A few minutes later arrived the gorgeous “Saladito.” Former Varnish bartender (now at The Raymond’s 1886 Bar in Pasadena) Marcus Tello invented the drink to honor a favorite spicy childhood candy of his in Mexico. Honey syrup mixes effortlessly with bracing Mezcal, then a little lime juice and salt is added before being shaken, and served up in a chilled coupe. The final alluring garnish of powdered paprika gives the jolt to lift everything another smoky, seductive level.
The frothy layer atop of the drink makes you swear that there must be egg white involved and dry shaking à la Pisco Sour. You’re wrong. It’s just what long, relentless shaking with the honey syrup yields for a consistency.
It’s not a classic cocktail like what so much of The Varnish repertoire is. It will be soon enough.
Hundreds of bars already try to replicate The Varnish, with very differing levels of success. It’s a privilege to drink these cocktails by candlelight and imagine being Al Capone. Without the corruption. I’m guessing the drinks were never this good back in the 20’s.