The first time I went to the Association, I thought it was the rumored bar to be opening in "the back of" Cole's French Dip (A recent reopening of the old LA Landmark and sole contender with Phillipe for prestigious title of Originator of the French Dipped Sandwich), as it is tucked, unmarked, next to the Cole's restaurant. The bar in question however is NOT the Association, but freshly opened the Varnish - Yes, literally "in the back of" Cole's dining room.
But plan to do some searching like me. There is no immediately apparent swinging bar inside Cole's. I poked by the bathrooms and then the kitchen before turning to a wooden panel, sans doorknob and only a set deadbolt holding a crack open for me to hear activity behind. The sinker was a small framed drawing of a coupe glass on the door. To my guests' surprise, I pried the mystery door open to find a lovely dim speakeasy on the other side. I use the term speakeasy loosely of course, as the Varnish is a bona fide bar, opened by Sasha Petraske of Milk & Honey in New York; mixologist Eric Alperin of Mozza and the Doheny; and Cedd Moses, owner of Cole’s and downtown bar scene kingpins Golden Gopher, Seven Grand, and Broadway Bar.
Given these weighty ties, the Varnish was remarkably down-to-earth and pleasant (then I did say that about the Edison after its soft opening as well). The room consists of a handful of booths - one of which we were lucky to score - a couple of small tables and a modest bar covered with chemistry glassware full of high-end mixers (Violette anyone?).
The cocktail menu is simple and classic, with a few twists.
My friend got the top drink on the list, called "the Business" (gin, lime, honey). It was light, fresh and slightly reminiscent of a Luden's natural honey-lemon cough drops (in a good way) - perfect for a summer day or a night out, with a cold. I opted for their amalgamation of two of my favorite whiskey classics, called "Remember the Maine"
(rye, vermouth, heering - a Danish cherry liqueur, and absinthe) - a cross between a Manhattan and a Sazerac (while everyone's claiming dibs, the Sazerac is often called the FIRST cocktail).
And after several other classics on the list like a Hot Buttered Rum and a Stinger (Brandy, Creme de Menthe, crushed ice) is the option for Bartender's Choice ("Allow us"). One of my friends went this route and after a short interview with her, the bartender started whipping up something far more special than what we had ordered (birthing slight envy). She ended up with a tall frothy glass of what he was calling a Bonded Apple Brandy Fizz. Now, Laird's Applejack (the more household sibling of Laird's Bonded Apple Brandy) is one of my favorite liquors, and a true [eggwhite] fizz is a pastime I could use a little more of in my life. So yes, I did taste this drink, and boy did it floor me. Frou frou done oh so right.
Thus, the next time you want to impress an out of town guest (this is no "LA" a visitor would ever expect), or just get a sexy nightcap to seal the deal, swing by the Varnish for a couple of mugs of fancy-ass moonshine.
The Varnish, 118 E. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 622-9999
[Top photos via mattatouille]