Cole’s and The Varnish, Revisited

All it took was one trip to Cole’s Pacific Electric Buffet and the speakeasy bar The Varnish in downtown Los Angeles to know we would soon return. So when Beth and I joined Susan, Gordon and Kristen DesCombes in February to celebrate Kristen’s birthday, we knew our journey into LA would not be without an encore visit. IMG_0809

It was just after Christmas that our group, along with Lauren DesCombes, dropped by Cole’s for French Dip sandwiches, only to find our way into the back-room Varnish speakeasy bar – two of the top cocktail bars in LA.

After several stops around town to start the evening, we headed down to Sixth Street to Cole’s, minus Kristen, who had an early morning ahead. A Los Angeles institution since 1908, Cole’s claims to have originated the French Dip sandwich (Philippe’s, which also opened in LA in 1908, makes the same claim). Cole’s was founded on the ground floor of the old Pacific Electric Railway Building and is the oldest restaurant and bar in downtown LA. Through the years, it has seen its share of famous and infamous patrons, including 1940s-era gangster Mickey Cohen.

It was getting fairly late, and the restaurant’s rush period was already past. The front section and bar were still open, but the side room was already empty and dark. At the back end, the inconspicuous door to the hidden lounge remained unlocked. Inside The Varnish, more great old jazz and blues filled the air as our waiter quizzed us for our beverage preferences. The best thing about The Varnish is that you don’t need to order a specific cocktail, but simply let the waiter know the kind of drink you like. The wait staff and artists behind the bar then collaborate to create something special. Merely state your spirit of choice, as well as the style of beverage you favor (refreshing, heavy, sweet, etc.), and moments later you have a cocktail customized to your liking. Susan ended up with an Eastside, featuring vodka, lime, cucumber and mint. Gordon’s drink was the La Paloma – a mixture of tequila, lime, grapefruit and soda in a glass rimmed with sea salt. Beth had a virgin Raspberry Fix with muddled raspberries, lemon and soda water (regularly mixed with vodka). I enjoyed a Peacock – a blend of Cognac, Amaro ChiCiaro liqueur, sugar, Absinthe and garnished with a lemon peel. Very nice.

IMG_0812The speakeasy of the Prohibition era gave customers a back-room retreat where they could secretly enjoy their favorite beverages and other activities away from eye of the law (or perhaps along with the local peace officers). While more of a novel theme for today’s bars to pay tribute to “The Noble Experiment” of 1920-1933, the quiet and hospitable environment found at the speakeasy of today is very appealing and enjoyable.

As we examined the lounge, we realized we were the last customers in the house. It was time to quaff our final sips. We had exhausted our capacity for mid-week adventures, so Beth and I headed back to Upland. We agreed that it won’t be long before we head downtown again in search of more great cocktails and bars, and with more friends in tow to relish the experience.

(Note: we have already made plans for another visit to Coles and The Varnish in the days ahead)