The Varnish

Stride past the meat-carving stations to the small door at the back of Cole’s, unmarked save for a tiny framed image of a cocktail glass. This is your find. Though it’s been praised as the greatest gift to L.A. cocktailology since Sinatra first gripped a lowball, you’re still cooler for knowing about it. If there’s a wait, appreciate it—management intentionally keeps the room unpacked. A black-vested gent leads you to a shiny wood banquette, where, to your left, perch two gals with pinned-up hairdos and Mary Janes and, to your right, sits a mustachioed 29-year-old in a bow tie. At the bar Marcos Tello meticulously crafts, tastes, and adjusts your drink—some historic libation not savored for almost a century, such as the Remember the Maine, a mix of rye, vermouth, cherry heering, and absinthe. An old piano is parked in the corner; you half expect it to tinkle out “As Time Goes By.” Here it never does. Time warp: Roaring ’20s speakeasy.Ultimate swill: Bartender’s choice, because chances are the best drink in the house is one you’ve never heard of. Secret ingredient: Patience—these drinks take time.

Best Gourmet Ice, August 2010

In the quest to determine which bar has the fanciest ice cubes, we found ourselves discussing concepts like surface tension, friction, and Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversion. Here’s the gist: The purer the ice, the colder it can get, and the colder the ice, the more control you have over dilution — its transformation into frigid water. You may have seen Rubik’s Cube-like blocks at cocktail temples such as Rivera, but the most pristine ice in town can be found at the speakeasy-esque bar The Varnish. A reverse osmosis filter takes out 99 percent of impurities before cinderblock-size hunks are frozen. The staff arrives two hours early to begin hand-cutting these down in shapes ranging from tall tubes to shards.

Best Speakeasy-Style Bar, August 2009

We hate to break it to you, but there is no such thing as a speakeasy. That would require alcohol to be illegal, which hasn’t been the case since 1933. Still, a number of bars tout the term, and who are we to stop them? The critical element seems to be secrecy, though a Prohibition-era vibe doesn’t hurt, either. The Radio Room at the Edison is a monthly speakeasy-themed party; the Doheny, a private club, has no sign. L.A.’s ultimate speakeasy-type establishment is just past the meat-carving stations at Cole’s downtown. There you’ll find a door bearing a tiny picture of a martini glass. Behind it is the Varnish, where the light is low, the music is antique, and some imbibers sport bow ties. The whole operation is civilized. Drinks are crafted with care by master mixologists Marcos Tello (formerly of the Edison) and Eric Alperin (formerly of Milk & Honey). Watching them stir, taste, and adjust the ingredients in a Sazerac or a Gentleman’s Buck is like watching performance art. That you’re sipping one of the cocktails just feet from unaware French-dip diners on the other side of the wall only adds to the illicit allure.