Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Varnish Shines in Downtown LA

Polish up your spats and spiffy up your moll, our very own speakeasy-style cocktail bar has arrived in Los Angeles!

Tucked into the back of Cole’s (home of the French Dip sandwich), there is a non-descript wooden door. It almost looks like its part of the wood paneling, except for the dim light coming from behind the cracked doorway. There is a bronze cocktail glass emblem - and that’s about all indicating
that within are some of the best drinks Los Angeles has to offer.

I – like many of you – have been waiting with baited breath for Eric Alperin and Sasha Petraske (of NYC’s Milk & Honey and Little Branch fame) to finally crack some ice and shake up L.A. with The Varnish. Anyone in the hospitality biz knows that if a restaurant or bar is due to open in, say, November, we should plan on the opening party in, oh, March, at best. So it goes with this one.

Last night, the first rounds of cocktails were served to guests, and I just had to be among those christening our coolest drinking hole to date. Who else was sipping drinkies and slapping the proud papas on the back? Mainly a gathering of friends and fellow Angeleno cocktailians, among them - John Colthorp (recently featured on The Bartender Diaries) and his lovely lady Maria; Vincenzo Marianella and wife Stephanie, also a Bartender Diaries feature a couple of years back and currently proud papa of Copa D’oro in Santa Monica; Silamith Weir of Martin Miller’s gin and Rachel Shaw, a bartender at Silverlake's Malo.

Another fun surprise was seeing Marcos Tello (yep, past Bartender Diaries too) and Chris Ojeda behind the bar! Where don’t those two pop up? Seriously, Marcos – do you work at every cool bar in Los Angeles? (The boy doesn’t sleep!)

I walked in with the best of intentions – one drink – oh, ok, two max, then home early. However, once I saw the cocktail list, I came to my senses, and knew I’d be around for a while. The first drink I had is called Remembering the Maine, made with some of my favorite things: vermouth, heering, absinthe and rye. It was oh-my-God-good,… and I wound up having 1 1/2 of them. (I shared the second with Silamith.) We also couldn’t resist a round of Pink Ladies. (Our glasses were garnished with red apples but Sasha said that by the next time we come the garnish would be a tart green apple…I leave it in your hands, maestro.)

The d├ęcor is dark, wood, red, vintage – everything we would want, need and expect in this style bar. The guys dress in ‘period barman chic’ (suspenders and white shirts). Meanwhile 20’s and 30’s music swoons the crowd. I love a theatrical feel in a very real, high-quality experience.

Finally, after some nice tippling and girly chats, I was heading out the door when I ran into the mack-daddy of the downtown cocktail revival, Cedd Moses. While he was waiting for a pork French Dip sandwich (things that make you go mmm), we chatted about his upcoming ventures (Did you know he has two more downtown bars already on the horizon?)

I also decided I could manage one more fabulous drinkie, this time from Cole’s outstanding classic cocktail list, and the skilled Brazilian barman, Francois, made me a pretty damn perfect Sazerac. (Yesterday was Mardi Gras, after all!) Cedd also tempted me with a piece of ridiculously good bourbon pecan pie ala mode. (Worth a drive into the 213 all on its own.)

It is exciting to see L.A. blossom into one of our country’s premiere drinking cities, and the people mentioned above are major forces in the movement to make that happen. Spruce yourself up, City of Angels, and pull up a barstool. The cocktailians are here to stay.


Chris said...

Too cool. I wish there was a place like that here.

Hmm, know any investors??

Jonathan Hutson said...

On Tuesday, March 10, 2009, my brother Jesse and I came to Cole’s Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Jesse is a native of southern California and had been ranting and raving about “The place that originated the French Dip Sandwich.” I have been living in Texas and eating French Dip sandwiches for years, and I had heard about Cole’s for years, so when I finally made it to Los Angeles after forty years of waiting and dreaming, there was only ONE place to go for lunch!

After paying several dollars to park nearby, we made our way to your restaurant. Although the place was not crowded at the time, we waited for several minutes before anyone greeted us or seated us. We ordered two beef French Dip sandwiches, one side order each, and drinks. The total of the bill came to over $40.00.

Imagine my surprise when my sandwich came and the beef was too tough to chew! The side orders and drinks were fine, but the main course-the much heralded French Dip Sandwich-was a HUGE disappointment. I managed to find a couple of small slices of meat that were edible, but the vast majority of the sandwich was left on the plate, untouched. When we pointed this out to an employee who identified himself as the manager, his only response was to blame the lack of quality on the kitchen and say, “Oh, well…maybe it will be better the next time you come.”

Let me assure you that, after my brother dropped nearly $50.00 on parking, sandwiches that were tougher than saddle leather, and a lackadaisical manager whose idea of placating a dissatisfied customer is a reference to (and a hope that) future visits will be better, there will not be a next time. With all due respect, your customer service sucks.

Cole’s may or may not have originated the French Dip Sandwich. The same claim is made by Philippe’s, and the point is really moot. But for the record, the French Dip Sandwich I had at Philippe’s the next day was incredible. When I return to Los Angeles next year, I will return to Philippe’s. Conversely, I will not only avoid Cole’s like a terminal illness, but I will encourage as many others as possible to do the same. said...

Thank you everyone for your comments. Jonathan - sorry to hear about that bad experience. That is a such a shame. Thanks for reading The Liquid Muse, and thanks for sharing your experience.

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