Foreword by Stan Lerner: You might notice that downtownster writers, including yours’ truly, write about or mention Varnish often — this is what happens when a place is this cool. And since I tell my writers to go with their gut when it comes to blogs I’ll never say no to a story about a place even if every downtownster writer feels a need to write about it. I’m thinking about doing a piece on the ice cubes at Varnish, next.
I’ve been a fan of Sasha Petraske since my first drink at Milk & Honey in NYC not too long ago. Subsequently, I’ve consumed a beverage at every one of his other locations in New York including, Little Branch, East Side Company Bar, and his newest absinthe bar that opened last summer, White Star.
With regard to Sasha’s cocktail coverage in Los Angeles, he first started by consulting with the bar at Comme Ca, and he has finally opened his own West Coast spot called The Varnish with Cedd Moses and Eric Alperin inside Cole’s French Dip in downtown LA. I was so excited when I read about this place opening up, I called several times before it was open to find out the opening day, and when it finally did open, I went on day 3. Since then I have been back many times. The drinks are so good that I drive all the way from Venice to downtown just for these unbelievable libations.
Everything Sasha touches turns to gold, or at least liquid gold, that is. For the absolute best old school cocktail inside a dimly lit speakeasy vibe with a live piano player, Varnish is the place to go. Better than Copa d’Oro where cocktails take 15 minutes to make, and better than Hungry Cat’s fresh fruit and house infusion concoctions (and I happen to LOVE HC), Varnish supersedes both. Using all freshly squeezed juices, top shelf and rare liquors, and a whole lot of love, shaking, and stirring, I could become an alcoholic drinking at Varnish every night.
To enter the cocktail mecca, one must first enter Cole’s (not to be confused with The Association next door), then walk directly through the restaurant past a wooden door with a small picture of a coupe glass on it. The best (aka most uncrowded) nights are during the week, and if you are planning a weekend trip, expect to wait 30 minutes or so for a booth. But, the best part is that you can grab a table inside Cole’s and consume a drink or bite while you wait. Also important to know, Cole’s serves a mean cheddar grilled cheese on thickly sliced sourdough bread. Normally, the grilled cheese comes with a side of tomato soup for dipping purposes, however I always swap out the tomato soup (which I don’t think is very good) for the delicious home made gravy-esque sauce they serve with most other sandwiches. Also, if you are sitting in Varnish and get a grilled cheese craving (this has happened to me many a times), you can order one up from Cole’s and bring it into Varnish. No problemo.
In terms of cocktails, my recommendation is to disregard the short drink list and go with a bartender’s or dealer’s choice. In true Milk & Honey style, the bartender will ask you which type of liquor you prefer, whether you like your drink fruity, sour, herbal…etc. And voila, in a few moments, magic is made, and you are sipping the best cocktail of your life. My favorites include the Gershwin (ginger, gin, simply syrup, lemon), Penicillin (scotch, ginger, honey, lemon), and the Pink Lady (gin, Applejack whiskey, lemon egg whites, grenadine) when made properly (I had a better version of this drink at Little Branch).
Regardless which you try, you are in for a treat.
118 e. 6th Street, downtown