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Bar Review: The World Turns, The Varnish Stays the Same

Why the bar that kicked off LA’s cocktail revival resists the urge to change with the times.

The Varnish LA

It was a bit of a dick move, I admit. I asked for a Tuxedo cocktail without saying which version I wanted. But, I figured, if the bartender at The Varnish didn’t know there were two different Tuxedo cocktails, the best days of Los Angeles as the cocktail bar standard-bearer were over.

Less than two minutes later, the server returned. Did I want the original (gin, sherry and bitters) or No. 2 (gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur and absinthe)? Test passed. And with flying colors—the Tuxedo No. 2 I got five minutes later was smooth as glass and elegantly integrated, one of the best I’d ever had.

The Varnish, a collaboration between the late Sasha Petraske, LA cocktail king Cedd Moses and Petraske-schooled bartender Eric Alperin, opened in 2009 in a room at the back of Cole’s, downtown’s shrine to the French dip sandwich. It immediately became the most important cocktail bar in the city through sheer dint of skill and intention. Today, The Varnish is no longer the most high-profile cocktail bar in LA; the city’s scene has blossomed too much in the past decade for that to be possible. (Moses and Alperin themselves have since continued their partnership to open Bar Clacson nearby and and will soon open Streamliner inside LA’s old Union Station.)

It may, however, be its most reliable. The boxy room is still pretty much what it was back in 2009: dark wood, candles on serving trays, lights so dim you can’t see people 10 feet away. It’s a John Sloan painting come to life. At the bar, formal bartenders conscientiously sculpt ingredients and ice, chipping away any particle that doesn’t resemble a perfect cocktail. Anyone who ever visited Milk & Honey, the New York cocktail cubbyhole on which Petraske’s reputation was founded, will recognize the aesthetic. But The Varnish improved on the model in terms of service. Unlike M&H, you can stand if there’s no seat, live music at the upright piano lends the space an additional warmth and there’s an actual menu.

But this is still a bar that has always had a certain “freedom from choice” ethos; they’re in the business of giving the best, not the most. So while there may be a menu, it’s a brief bill of fare, with five selections only. On my first of three recent visits, I went with the Gin Daisy, just the sort of austere quasi-classic this bar is known for. It was restrained, balanced and dry. Textbook. When my guest asked for something Bramble-y, she got a blackberry fix: gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and a blackberry garnish over crushed ice. I’ve had plenty of fixes at bars run by Petraske bartenders, and I’ve never had a bad one.

If The Varnish has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the Bartender’s Choice. The menu option—a feature now so worldwide, it’s old hat—began back in the Milk & Honey/Little Branch days. Instead of naming a specific drink, the customer lists a few preferences (spirit choice; up or on the rocks; etc.) and the bartender goes to work. In the early years, it was a recipe for adventure. But, as time went by and bartenders grew tired of the trick, it bred knee-jerk, predictable responses.

Because the bar’s menu is so brief, my guests and I opted for Bartender’s Choice several times, just to see what happened. The first time at the plate, the bartender nailed a base hit. We asked for something bitter, spirit-forward and served up. We got a Chin Up, a Sam Ross drink made of gin, dry vermouth, Cynar and bruised cucumber. (There’s nothing like the taste of cucumber to bring you back to the early days of Milk & Honey.) Perfume-like and delicate, it was an adequate answer to our request, but didn’t exactly wow. When I asked for an old Eric Alperin drink, I got the Colonial Ties, a rum-rye Old-Fashioned variant. It was good, but, again, not quite the Easter egg I hoped for. A third request brought a ho-hum Silver Lining, an old rye sour riff made with Licor 43 created by Joseph Schwartz in the first days of Milk & Honey. Now, I appreciate The Varnish’s allegiance to its in-house classics, but Bartender’s Choice needs to be kept fresh if it’s to remain vital. To use a game-show metaphor, if there’s not something truly eye-opening behind Door No. 2, I’m going take the cash instead.

One time, our gamble paid off completely. When we called for a nitecap with amaro in it, we got a Pop Quiz by Devon Tarby. It was simple enough: bourbon, Ramazzotti amaro, simple syrup, chocolate-mole bitters and an orange twist. But it hit the after-dinner bullseye—strong, gently bitter, with rich notes of orange and caramel—while still being unexpected enough.

A skeptic might say that The Varnish, though not even a decade old, is now a time capsule, that it has become staid, hasn’t moved with the times. But that is exactly why I cherish it, and would recommend it to anyone who is genuine in their love of cocktails. Too many of the hot new cocktail bars are as jumpy as a June bug in a henhouse. They are forever changing their menus, décor, concepts and uniforms, all in a seemingly never-ending effort to stay in the media’s crosshairs and remain “relevant.” This frequently leaves customers disoriented and confused. In such an era, I appreciate a place like The Varnish, that got it right at the beginning, knows it got its right and has enough sense to see that what ain’t broke doesn’t need fixing.

“Many former staff come in and comment that nothing has changed besides new faces,” Alperin told me. “As the world turns, The Varnish stays the same.”

Maybe there aren’t many surprises. But then, just think of how surprising it is to dependably get one excellent drinking experience after another.

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