Why L.A.’s most influential cocktail bar is closing after 15 years

Two bartenders at the Varnish in L.A. pouring drinks behind the bar.
The Varnish opened in 2009 and was ground zero for L.A.’s burgeoning cocktail scene at the time, serving up expertly-crafted drinks in a one-of-a-kind setting.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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The Varnish, a legendary cocktail bar that heralded a modern cocktail revolution in L.A., will close its doors Wednesday after being open for more than 15 years.

In 2009, Eric Alperin, Sasha Petraske and Cedd Moses opened the bar hidden behind an unmarked door inside the more than century-old sandwich shop Cole’s French Dip. The speakeasy used seasonal and fresh produce, vintage recipes and artisanal spirits. Soon, it became the epicenter of L.A.’s burgeoning cocktail scene at the time, serving up finely-crafted drinks, such as a well-executed Aviation with homemade crème de violette.

After years of trying to keep afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Varnish was only making half the business it did prior, said Alperin.

A server chatting with people sitting at a dinner table inside a dimly-lit speakeasy.
Crowds loved the Varnish for its precision cocktails and speakeasy vibe.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Alperin said the bar never quite recovered after the onset of COVID-19. He worked on trying to keep the bar alive, but it became financially unsustainable. The last six months have been particularly difficult.

“It’s been a challenging environment for our industry in Los Angeles, and the Varnish fell victim to the astronomical costs and liability of running a full service culinary experience,” according to a statement on the bar’s website. “The Varnish’s hospitality was at its best when we had one team member working for about every ten guests, but with the soaring costs associated with labor in Southern California, it didn’t stand a chance.”

Rising costs made the business “unsustainable,” the statement said.

The Varnish joins a growing number of food and beverage establishments that have closed because of financial difficulties.

At the same time, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased in the area near the Varnish, which keeps patrons away, Alperin said.

“The community of people living downtown, it isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “A lot of people moved out and moved on. They went away. It just isn’t happening downtown the way it used to be.”


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Edged by small booths with wood tables decorated with sconces, the 1920s-inspired cocktail bar that measures 987 square feet is the kind of place where you sip on a Ramos gin fizz while listening to jazz tunes.

Alperin had worked at Milk & Honey, which the late Petraske opened in 1999, considered an influential bar in New York City, which started the global speakeasy trend and helped lead a craft cocktail movement.

The duo brought a similar sensibility to L.A. when they opened the Varnish.

Shortly after the bar opened in February 2009, the late Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold wrote a story about the new cocktail movement in Los Angeles. Gold was a regular, often enjoying a libation — usually an Aviation — with friends after dinner.

A server walking in front of a wall with a black and white photo of a city and a plain door.
Walk through an unmarked door in the back of Cole’s restaurant in downtown L.A. to find the Varnish.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

But perhaps one of the most popular drinks was the Bartender’s Choice. Instead of naming a specific drink, the patron listed preferences, such as spirit choice, and the bartender would go to work.

On June 18, Alperin announced the closure on Instagram. Since then, he said, business has picked up at the Varnish. On the last day, they’ll be offering daiquiris to patrons.


“I had my mourning period,” Alperin said. “I think right now it’s time to put her to sleep.”