You'd never expect to find some of the best 'tails in LA in the back of a place that serves finger-licking garlic fries. Yet, The Varnish—tucked inside an old storage room at Cole's and marked solely by the etching of a cocktail on the door—has managed to become the bastion of this city's drinking culture. Of course, that's to be expected from nightlife guru Cedd Moses (Seven Grand and Las Perlas). Amidst the hushed jazz ditties and dim lighting, mustachioed bartenders carefully craft vintage tipples with names like Bobby Burns, Paper Plane, and Baker's Buck, though the real reason to come is for the Bartender's Choice. You'll get exactly what you're craving every time. Promise.
Good for: A quiet schmooze and a Prohibition-era cocktail. The place has sex appeal, with low lighting, bordello-black wallpaper, and intimate banquettes, which welcomes cozy conversation and the very slow consumption of some boozy libations. A secret tryst, perhaps? Get to The Varnish as close to opening as possible; any later, and good luck.
The scene: It's a tidy, civilized kind of place, where a man in a vest guides you to your seat. The space is small, so there's usually a wait. The good news is that you can bide your time noshing on a Cole's French dip sandwich (the only food allowed inside). Most imbibers—a mix of gents in bow ties and red-lipsticked ladies—will hang out at the bar, enamored by the cocktail performance art.
The playlist: Faint jazz standards play in the background. There's also an old upright piano positioned in the corner of the room, which gets tickled every so often by some well-groomed vaudevillian.
The bartender says: These are bartenders with solid technique—the types to anguish over handcrafted ingredients and chisel blocks of ice into crystal clear cubes. Don't get discouraged by their very straightforward (and a tad pretentious) "Allow us" slogan. Pretty much anything on and off the menu is worth the wait.
Drink this: On the menu, the Manhattan (the Bobby Burns) is a fan favorite, as is the Rum Old Fashioned—a sweeter blend of Demerara rum, sugar, and bitters, garnished with an orange peel. For off-the-menu libations (the Bartender's Choice), the smokey and sweet Medicina Latina is a must: tequila, ginger, agave, and floating mezcal. The aromatic Paper Plane is also a solid choice, made with good bourbon, two Italian digestifs, lemon juice, and adorned with a lemon twist. Whether on-menu or custom-made, the cocktails are a steep $13 a pop. But boy are they unforgettable.