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The insider’s view of Downtown’s culture, food, drinks, and the people who shape it.


The Varnish

The Varnish

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The suspender-clad bartender chats quietly with his guests as he chizzles away at a block of ice for the couple’s cocktails. He needn’t strain to hear his guests’ orders or hollar at them like in other establishments. At The Varnish in Downtown Los Angeles, an intimate experience begins the moment one steps inside. The bartender lightly coats a cocktail glass with Absinthe after shaking his drink to completion. He pours the creamy liquid with precision, narrowing his fixed eye to the rim of the glass. No garnish or flair required to round off The Rattlesnake—a variation of an old-fashioned whiskey sour; its velvety texture sitting in the antique-style glass is more than enough to entice.

The patron takes a sip; she smiles.

the-Varnish_Story
the-Varnish_Story

Photo courtesy of The Good Grub

Concealed behind an unassuming door inside Cole’s—one of LA’s most iconic sandwich shops—the 1920’s-inspired cocktail bar is a true treasure. Since its opening in 1908, Cole’s, purported home of the French Dip, has been one of the oldest active restaurants in Downtown LA. Despite its 1920‘s flair, The Varnish, is in fact a much newer addition. In 2009, the owners decided to transform the modest storage room into an old fashioned speakeasy. However, what came about after the remodeling was more than a simple facelift; The Varnish is a time capsule.

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Vanish_Story

Photo courtesy of Serious Eats

Framed on the door for all who enter reads a definition from Merriam Webster:

Common sense: the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.

A custom warning sign of sorts, the definition delicately reminds its patrons that the threshold bares no intent of leading one to the average dive. Instead, what transpires is a travel back in time so few 21st century establishments, with their blaring music and walls plastered with television sets, have the ability to translate.

Candles flicker at each table as if joining in on the cozy conversations taking place throughout the back room bar. Although the bar is quiet, each conversation keeps to itself. A subtle voice comes naturally in this environment and there seems to be no interest in eavesdropping. One gets the impression that Mickey Cohen, who was a patron of Cole’s, would be right at home.

Like the atmosphere, the cocktails never left Prohibition. Drinks like the Gin Smash or Pineapple Daiquiri provide a seasonal twist to classic recipes while the “bartender’s choice” offers the adventurous patron the opportunity to try any number of tantalizing concoctions off the menu.

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The_Varnish_-Story

Photo courtesy of theperfectspotsf

For the best pairing, indulge in the warming tunes of the Sunday through Tuesday night live vaudeville and jazz while sipping on finely crafted Ramos Gin Fizzes and Mint Juleps. The singer’s voice through the vintage microphone changes the air and makes the transition from Cole’s main floor to its former storage room palpable. Her voice only adds to the hushed dialogue and cocktail shaking that make up the soundtrack of the simulated past.

The Varnish invites all who wish to escape reality and all it takes is a little common sense.

Written by:
Cleo Tobbi
Photographed by:
Featured Image Courtesy of weekendtrips.com

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