"Weren't you named best bar in ... what was it, Los Angeles?" a blond woman asks bartender Niki Lindgren.
Lindgren flashes her luminous smile and responds, "In America."
It's Friday night at the Varnish, the first Friday night since the bar received the award for Best Bar in America at the previous weekend's Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards ceremony. All the wooden booths are full, customers stand three deep at the bar, and there's a long line that snakes from the Varnish's door at the back of Cole's through the restaurant almost to the host stand. This isn't particularly uncommon for a Friday night -- the bar got a small bump in business last week, probably due to the award, but it's hard to say why anyone walks into any bar on any given night.
Lindgren and the blond woman have just gone though a delicate dance: The woman ordered a Cosmo, Lindgren explained that they didn't really have the makings for a Cosmo. With her garnet lips and a matching flower in her dark curly hair, Lindgren exudes a calm beauty. She addresses the woman in an accommodating and serious tone, with zero hint of condescension, annoyance or hurry, even as the orders come in and a slight madness swirls around her. "We don't really have cranberry juice," she explains, "but we do have other fresh juices. I could make you something with some of the same sweet/tart notes you might be looking for." A minute later, a gorgeous, slightly frothy pink thing is passed across the bar. The blond woman takes a sip and beams.
At the other end of the bar, Jason Hubert is working steadily and intently. He breaks his concentration to look up at a pair of fellows who ask how they get a seat at one of the tables. "I'm just making the drinks," he smiles. "That's the man you need to speak to right there," pointing to general manager Max Seaman, who is doing his best to wrangle the crowd and keep everyone happy.
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Holding down the middle of the bar are two Australian bartenders, on their way home from Tales of the Cocktail, stopping in L.A. for, among other things, a pilgrimage to America's best bar. In plaid shirts and hats they murmur over their drinks, exchanging sips, nodding enthusiastically. Their favorite is the "Nice Legs," a stirred-down gin drink that is bitter and herbal and yet still completely elegant.
"Niki!" a regular calls out from the hubbub of the crowd that fits at the small bar. "Have I told you how beautiful you look this evening?" Lindgren flashes that smile and nods in thanks, then focuses her attention back to the drinks at hand.