The Varnish isn't the obscurest of bars; far from it. You'll find no secret entrance, obscure protocol or whiff of illegality; you don't have to walk through a coat closet or trip down the stairs off an alley. But even on a block crowded with bars, there is a sense of adventure every time you stumble into the tiny, dimly lit room, which lies behind an unmarked door at the back of Cole's, and settle into one of the wooden booths styled after the seats on the old Red Cars, whose tracks still lie directly underneath the building.
Are the drinks perfect? They come pretty close, both the classic Prohibition-era cocktails and the cocktails that could pass for vintage if they didn't include things like chile or mezcal. There is no better place for an Aviation at the end of the night. And if you ask nicely, somebody may show you to the peephole outside in the hallway, looking down onto a cracked-open suitcase, frilly contents spilling down the stairs toward the abandoned subway below.
The Varnish: 118 E. 6th St., Los Angeles. (213) 622-9999.
Look for more “Best of L.A.” pieces in our annual Best of L.A. issue, out Oct. 7th.