The Varnish

Bar / Speakeasy
The Varnish Marked only by a small drawing of a cocktail, the discreet entrance to The Varnish at the back of Cole's restaurant lends an air of secrecy and forbidden frolicking to this updated speakeasy in downtown LA. Los Angeles United States 34.0450452 -118.2496468
4.05 16
The Varnish - Bar | Speakeasy in Los Angeles.
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Lucas
Adriana
Jonah
Emma

Party Earth Review Marked only by a small drawing of a cocktail, the discreet entrance to The Varnish at the back of Cole’s restaurant lends an air of secrecy and forbidden frolicking to this updated speakeasy in downtown LA. A tiny one... ... read full review

  • Metro:

    Red Line: Pershing Square; Purple Line: Pershing Square

  • Phone:

    213-622-9999

  • Links:

  • Hours:

    M–Su 6pm–2am

  • Recommended as:

    • Night Spot

Party Earth The Varnish Review

The Scene

Marked only by a small drawing of a cocktail, the discreet entrance to The Varnish at the back of Cole's restaurant lends an air of secrecy and forbidden frolicking to this updated speakeasy in downtown LA.

Marked only by a small drawing of a cocktail, the discreet entrance to The Varnish at the back of Cole’s restaurant lends an air of secrecy and forbidden frolicking to this updated speakeasy in downtown LA.

A tiny one-room haven catering to a clientele of cool east-siders, after-work types, and loyal regulars, the venue’s fifty-person capacity means that patrons are guaranteed personal attention, from the waitresses who greet everyone on arrival to the expert mixologists who take their time to carefully craft each drink and chat with the artsy guests about the cocktail-making process.

Vintage slatted-wood booths offer groups of hipsters a cozy place to hang for the night, while couples can share more intimate moments at the small café tables in the middle of the dimly lit space.

Penny-tiled floors, antique crystal sconces, an old map of LA, and red velvet wallpaper contribute to the cozy Prohibition-era vibe, as do the piano players who favor Charleston standards and the laid-back patrons themselves, some of whom even dress in 20s garb or wear flowers in their hair.

Although The Varnish can get more uproarious on the weekends, the real focus of this easygoing yet lively late-night spot is on gathering with friends for fantastic cocktails in a quirky, hush-hush atmosphere.

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Tip from Emma:

Order a drink with tonic – it’s served with an individual bottle of Q Tonic made with organic agave nectar. The stuff is absolutely delicious and makes your drink all the more special.

  • Crowd

    Edgy artsy types, hipsters, downtown locals, after-work crowd, and cocktail connoisseurs, 20s to 60s.

  • Entertainment / Music

    Live piano music Monday and Tuesday nights at 9pm featuring standards from the Jazz Age.

  • Food / Miscellaneous

    None.

  • Prices

    Beer $7+, wine $10–$12, cocktails $12+.

  • What to Wear / Dress Code

    Vintage dresses and suits, after-work attire, funky casual.

  • Hot Nights / When to Go

    Fridays and Saturdays for the biggest crowds, Mondays and Tuesdays for the piano music.

  • Close By

    The Varnish is located inside Cole’s restaurant, the self-proclaimed originator of the French dip sandwich. Open until 1am on the weekends.

The Varnish User Reviews

Average rating:
The Finest Cocktails in DTLA
Brett C. Jul 8, 2013
My Take: I’ve always wanted to check out The Varnish and finally made my way on Friday night after the Fleetwood Mac concert at Staples Center. I wish I had stopped by sooner, as The Varnish serves up some of the best drinks in the city. The Scene: Tucked away behind a relatively unmarked door in the back of Cole’s (head straight back once you enter the front of the restaurant), The Varnish is a small, darkly lit, basic space that resembles what I imagine speakeasies actually looked like back in the day with plenty of wood tones. It’s a square room filled with tables and booths that are perfect for intimate conversation. There isn’t really any standing room, and they cap the admission so that people aren’t standing around or intermingling other than waiting for their drinks at the bar, so come with a group (or a date) that you don’t mind visiting with exclusively. Cocktails and Cuisine: The Varnish has a full bar, but where they shine is their signature cocktails. I had an amazing Monte Carlo, which is basically an Old Fashioned with Benedictine, and my buddy enjoyed his Mai Tai so much that he went up to personally thank the bartender again on the way out. The Varnish doesn’t serve food but lets you bring in Cole’s takeout to enjoy in the back room. Prices: Cocktails are pricy at $13, but totally worth it. I didn’t try anything else, so I’m not sure on pricing otherwise. What to Wear: Having come straight from the concert, we were slightly underdressed in t-shirts. Classy casual is the way to go here. Insider Info: Rather than waiting in line, a doorman takes down your name, much like putting your name down at a restaurant. On a busy night, head here first and put your name down, then check out The Association next door or Las Perlas across the street.
For the Cocktail Connoisseur
Alexis S. Jan 2, 2013
While the Varnish may seem like a well-kept secret to first timers frequenting the downtown L.A. speakeasy, the bar boasts friendly servers and a cozy environment that keep patrons feeling like they've always been in the know. But don't think the Varnish is an equal opportunity drinkers' bar- bringing along a friend whose cocktail repertoire hasn't expanded past the standard vodka-cran and isn't ready to branch out quite yet could prove disastrous. With a cocktail menu so carefully crafted - and each libation coming in at $13 - the Bartender's Choice is a safe bet if none of prescribed options stand out. The single ice cube shaped to the glass and the metal straws add a unique touch. Weeknights are safer than weekends - but if you're planning on a downtown outing, this bar is one not to miss.
Well Crafted Cocktails
Jackie D. Nov 4, 2012
The Varnish is most likely the best bar to go to in downtown LA if you're looking for well balanced and artistically crafted cocktails. While busy nights (Fri and Sat) can sometimes result in a bit of a slump in service, most of the time the servers and bartenders are fantastic. The low lighting and the hush hush of the speak easy atmosphere make this a prime date spot. There's also live piano on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I would highly recommend going on one of those nights because not only is it a little less raucous inside, but the guy who plays the piano is a sweetheart and will take requests!
Check It Out At Least Once
Victor H. Oct 17, 2012
I learned about The Varnish on Party Earth's website and also read nothing but positive reviews so after having dinner and drinks at Cole's with a friend we decided to sneak our way into The Varnish. As soon as you open the door you're immediately greeted by a waiter who lets you know if there is or isn't any tables available and asks if you want to be added to the wait list. We added our names to the wait list and proceeded to the bar. We ordered the Bartender's Special which is essentially whatever the bartender wants to make you with the only criteria being a spirit of your choice. They seemed to be busy that night so there was a short wait to get our drinks. In fact as we waited the waiter came by and let us know that a table was available in case we wanted to take it. We decided to take it and a few minutes later a waitress came by with our drinks. The drinks were delicious and strong, just the way I like them. The only bad thing is your drink comes with a humongous block of ice that I would say is takes up 75% of your glass. At $13 a drink I'd like to get 75% less ice. There was a good crowd and nice ambiance which would have been made even better if the piano was being played. Unfortunately it was covered up and simply taking up space. Overall I recommend checking out this place at least once and having a drink. The size of the place and prices will probably only have me coming here whenever I feel like showing it to someone.
Great Date Spot
Sara G. Oct 16, 2012
The Varnish is awesome. Start out your night at Cole's and get a French Dip and a fun cocktail, and then head directly to the back to enter The Varnish. Service can be spotty, but the place is so cool that I find myself overlooking that. I'd highly recommend going on a Monday or Tuesday because there is live piano, and I've even been there when there is an upright base and a tiny drum kit to accompany the piano. The music fills the tiny room but you can still hear your date. I always go with Bartender's Choice as my drink, it's different every time, and they never disappoint. Just remember to ask for the name of the drink (which I often forget to) or you won't be able to recreate your order the next time you're there!
Downtown Empire
Colin H. Oct 13, 2012
I wouldn't have known the Varnish existed if a friend living above it hadn't told me. I guess that's the point of being a speakeasy. It's a love story to the Roaring '20s, and the atmosphere hasn't changed in the 90 years since, from the ragtime piano player to the vintage outfits of the bartenders and waitresses. It's the same, secret meeting place for intimate friends as it used to be. Last time I was here, a Food Network film crew had set up to film a piece about world class alcoholic beverages. I guess the secret part is out. Calling the people here bartenders isn't doing them justice. "Mixologist" gets close, but really, these guys are artists. They're Da Vinci if you needed a cab home after looking at the Mona Lisa. The menu itself is sparse, a barebones sheet of paper on a clipboard hanging above the table. It's a list of suggestions more than an offering of goods, and the best order is asking to be surprised. You'll be hounded a bit to narrow down the selection ("Do you like fruity or bitter drinks? Gin? Vodka? Tequila?") but letting the guys behind the counter run wild yields the best results. I was given a gin drink made with lime and egg whites, and it was the best drink I'd ever had. I'm not sure it even has a name. Don't go too crazy though - if theres one thing the Varnish embodies, its class and intimacy. The largest group allowed at a table is 5, and the booths most comfortably seat 4. Theres low music and mood lighting to encourage conversation. Cole's, one of two claimants to the title of inventor of the french-dipped sandwich, lies just outside the Varnish's unmarked door and provides food for the speakeasy, though it can't be ordered without going outside. Located at 6th and Main in the heart of the Pacific Electric Building (itself a relic of Prohibition era Los Angeles), the Varnish is a perfect stop on Thursdays before or after Art Walk. Those nights, the town comes alive with local artists and wares vendors, making the walk between bar hopping as enjoyable as the bars themselves. The vintage fashion the Art Walk draws out seems almost like guerilla marketing for the Varnish, and its hard not to end up there. By the end of the night, you'll be entertained, well fed, and hopefully a little tipsy. The speakeasy closes by 1 AM, and its no surprise to see the number of people filing out at the last minute. It's hard to say no to another drink, if only to see what comes next.
A Secret Only You and I Should Know About
Joanne C. Sep 25, 2012
You only need to know one thing about The Varnish: it is an unforgettable experience. There, I said it. End of review. But really, from the subtle entrance at the back of Cole's restaurant -- another great spot in downtown LA, by the way -- to the pianist playing soft tunes through the night to the cocktail waiters who know everything about drinks (read: everything), the speakeasy-inspired lounge is utmost perfection. There's nothing flashy about this place. In fact, it's everything but flashy here -- it's both simple and elegant in its restraint. The drinks are just as subtle too. The flavors that these spirit masters can come up with is beyond me. I got a ginger drink the first time and loved every minute of it. The funnest part of the night is just thinking what to order. Sometimes it's best to leave the decision up to the bartender. Just tell him what flavors or even what mood you're in (mellow, sexy, fiery...) and he'll create something just for you. More often than not, these custom drinks hit the spot. After sipping on drinks all night, soak up the alcohol with the grilled cheese sandwich at Cole's on the way out. True, everyone talks about their french dip sandwiches, but here's another secret (just 'cause I'm feeling so nice): the grilled cheese sandwich at Cole's is SERIOUS business.
Escape The Day By Heading to the Varnish at Night...
Lauren N. Aug 16, 2012
Downtown is a labrynth of one way streets and skyscrapers casting shadow on the city of often fallen angels. I only venture downtown for specific reasons and when I heard about vintage styled The Varnish I was GPS-ing myself there post-haste to see why the Varnish had so many L.A. kids under its spell. A shady parking lot, an overlit deli, and a backdoor later and I'm slipping into a coktail den circa yesteryear. This was a serious switch-up to my Thursday night norm but a breath of fresh air welcomed to my routine. I decided to have a little fun and when the server asked if I'd like to let the mixologist make a custom drink for me I threw caution to the wind and jumped headfirst into an anything but ordinary bar situation. I gave her my go-to drink and my absolutely under no conditions and what she returned with was a marjito (martini/mojito hybrid) of sorts with just enough spirit to send me on a one way trip into a cosmopolitan haze. The dimly lit den attracted all sordid sorts leaving no stereotype unturned. The tired, the poor, the nine-to-fivers yearning to break free from the Monday to Friday mundane had their wishes answered care of carefully crafted cocktails and mixologists that like to make the anything but ordinary. Though the classics are always a steadfast standby if you're teetering on the dark and daring side of life let the staff concoct a designated drink personalized to your preferences, you won't be dissapointed. Cheers!
Love love LOVE The Varnish
Alex L. Aug 13, 2012
The Varnish may be Downtown LA's best little secret bar. My good friend came across it one night and raved about for days until finally I decided I had to check it out for myself. Apparently in his excitement about the bar, he failed to notice the restaurant "this bar behind a janitors door" was in, so we set out to find it. And I can say, walking the streets of Downtown in 6 inch pumps for an hour looking for this secret bar was completely worth it. This low key, tavern style bar is the perfect escape from the typical rowdy, music pumping crowd in LA. Dim lighting, amazing service, and a close, intimate atmosphere make The Varnish the best secret in town. Not to mention the fact that their mixologists are amazing. They are very personable and immaculate at creating the best drinks for your taste. On our first visit, i told our mixologist to surprise me. He delivered me the most yummy drink called the "Vodka Daisy", which I have since ordered every time (I highly recommend it). All in all, The Varnish transports you out of the fast paced and loud world of Downtown Los Angeles and into a hidden vintage oasis with an intimate vibe. It's also a great place to network!
Not-So-Secret Downtown Dive
Nikki L. Aug 8, 2012
This place is super low-key. There isn't a sign outside or anything, you just go through Cole's. It's pretty small and dive-y, never rowdy, and there really isn't any room to stand around. It's definitely a sit-and-enjoy kind of bar rather than a party bar, so it there aren't any seats left, ask if you can order a drink and have it brought to a table in the restaurant (if there isn't a wait there, too). I've done this, but I'm not sure if it's standard. They also refer to their bartenders as "mixologists," which is usually just pretentious, but I can say I've never had a bad drink there, and there's no menu to order from. You just "trust them." Tell 'em your spirit of choice and whether you prefer aromatic or acidic, and there it is. Exactly what you wanted. I hear their ice is all chipped from one huge block behind the bar, so it's it's never really uniform. I wouldn't wait for it to get too watered down. Varnish is definitely for cocktail-lovers, and even mini-bar-crawls-lovers. The Association and Las Perlas are RIGHT THERE. Plus late night food from Cole's or the Nickel Diner (DOUGHNUTS). It's like the best block ever. And the Varnish is perfect for winding down your night.
The Original LA Speakeasy
Paul F. Aug 1, 2012
Love the Varnish for a number of reasons. First, you have to go through Cole's restaurant to get there. And I probably love Cole's even more. Best French Dip in the city, maybe the best mac & cheese and Caesar salad as well. But once you're done, head to the back of the restaurant where there's a small drawing of a glass at the door. Open it up and enter the miniscule bar inside. Once you're in, you're greeted by a hostess who will seat you 'if' there's room. There's no standing at the Varnish, so if the seats are filled, you'll have to wait. The drinks are incredible. Granted they take 10 minutes just to make, but they're all delicious and they'll even whip up something original based on your likes. Word of advice, get in there before 10pm, because the line can get long and there just aren't that many seats.
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