If I wasn’t such a big fan of Eric Aleperin and Sasha Petraske’s Milk and Honey and from the years I spent in New York, I would’ve written off Varnish as just another Johnny-come-lately watering hole attempting to capitalize on the speakeasy craze. Lump it in with The Edison, Seven Grand, and that place in Little Tokyo down the alley off of first (second?). Hell, it’s right next to The Association. Not to say I don’t enjoy those places, I’ve spent many a night cutting rugs at The Edison, enjoying a fine glass of Kentucky Bourbon at Seven Grand, and I’ve stumbled my way home from that back alley bar in LT. It’s just the speakeasy has to be done just right. It’s an easy formula to take advantage of, and it’s been underutilized for years: Throw together and old-timey soundtrack, a dress code for patrons and staff alike, bathe the place in darkness, and you’ve got the hippest gin joint in the city (for at least a couple of months).
But with the track record of Milk and Honey and Little Branch (probably my favorite bar on Manhattan between ’04 and ’06) I knew I had to make the less-than-excruciating two-block walk from my apartment, and at least get a gander. I called a friend, finished my glass of wine and strolled down Main Street until I hit Cole’s French Dip on Sixth Street. I headed south, entered the door and was led to another door deeper within the bar. This one was black, and unmarked save a small, framed picture of a glass of bubbly. This was Varnish, a bar within a bar, a spot within a spot, already, the place was making a good impression. However, always the cynic, I took a deep breath, braced myself for disappointment, and went in.
And I’m glad I did. Varnish lives up to my two old haunts. From the generous and laid back wait-staff to the comfort of the clientele, it felt just like the old days on seventh ave in the city. It’s dimly lit, and the booths are comfortable. Time slips by and one barely notices, especially when sipping one of their top-notch cocktails. I had a wonderful gin drink, and true to form, it was cooled by a bobbling fist-sized cube of ice, just like back east. The drink menu stands up to scrutiny and the din is just right for an intimate cocktail hour with friends or lovers. The vibe is cool as can be, and lends itself to quiet conversation more than rowdy excess. When you go, try and keep your group small, you’ll get a table faster and a definitely have more fun.
These guys have done it again, and I for one, plan on hitting up their west coast spot at least twice during the week, a little trick I learned to make the wait on the weekends a little quicker. Cheers.