Whether or not you believe Cole’s invented the French dip sandwich, we can all agree that it’s got a leg up on Philippe’s when it comes to drinks. That probably has something to do with a big Cole’s revamp by Pouring with Heart (formerly 213 Hospitality), and it’s got a lot to do with the speakeasy that the hospitality group built in the back: The Varnish isn’t just a cornerstone of L.A.’s secret bars, it ushered in their era (though Cole's also served food and drink during another era, Prohibition). One of the first modern speakeasies in the city, the Varnish trained some of the top bartenders in town and kept crowds streaming to the entrance at the back of the restaurant. The historic building still sports tile flooring and warm wood booths, and in the hidden bar, live jazz and classic cocktails to match the vintage vibes. Of course you can’t go wrong with a bartender’s-choice drink, or getting there early—the place always fills up as the evening wears on.
Sure, liquor’s been legal since Prohibition’s end, and there’s no practical use for smuggling hooch in basement bars post-1933, but there’s still something sleek about a speakeasy—especially in an age where everything is on full display across social media, removing all the mystery. Fortunately, L.A. keeps a bit of the playful, adventurous, seek-and-ye-shall-find spirit going thanks to the city’s oldest bars and modern-day spots tucked into corners as video stores, hotels, barber shops and anything else you need to explore to find the door.
What defines a speakeasy? Some of L.A.’s top examples are shifting and adapting—even K-town’s beloved pirate-themed speakeasy, R Bar, ditched its passwords a few years ago, and now it’s just a bar; nothing wrong with that, though, let’s be clear—so for the purposes of this list, we whittled the criteria. Evey bar on this list has an entrance that’s physically hidden or unmarked, whether it’s a door within a restaurant or in a basement, or the door is actually a bed that flips around to reveal a secret staircase. You’ve got to be in the know to find these top-notch cocktail dens.
Once you’ve unlocked these great bars, you’ll usually find burlesque, live jazz, vinyl nights and other secrets waiting to be discovered. Hit the town like it’s 1922 for our city’s top new, old and everything-in-between speakeasies.