Once upon a time, speakeasies were born from necessity: tucked-away watering holes where imbibing was freely embraced during the era of Prohibition. When the 21st Amendment did away with those restrictions, tons of bars emerged from the shadows.
But 10 years back, as craft cocktails began to take off, new self-styled “speakeasies” emerged around the country: The Violet Hour in Chicago, Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, and PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in Manhattan, a bar made infamous by its camouflaged entrance: through a phone booth in a hot dog shop. Many of these, taking their cue from historical speakeasies, embraced the Prohibition theme full on: low-lit back rooms, a Jazz Age aesthetic.
A decade later, the appeal of the clandestine drinking den is still going strong, and a new wave of speakeasies is going beyond the Prohibition theme, taking the form of everything from 50s-inspired lounges to bars housed within arcades. Here are 10 speakeasies to seek out—and how to get in.
Few names command more respect in the Houston bar scene than Bobby Heugel, which is why the tiny, formal Tongue-Cut Sparrow he launched with co-owner Peter Jahnke has such a following. The 25-seat bar, sitting above partner venue The Pastry War, boasts formally attired bartenders, a jazz soundtrack and a tight cocktail list that covers all the classics; largely inspired by the intimate bars of Tokyo, it's the perfect spot for a Japanese highball.
The Office NYC
New York, NY
One of New York’s two biggest 2017 bar openings is tucked behind the other: The Office NYC, a small clubby bar on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, New York. Housed within The Aviary NYC, the two are the first New York projects from famed chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas. At The Office NYC, expect a dazzling collection of vintage spirits—some believed to be the last bottles of their kind—along with cocktails simple in name but elaborate in execution, like the Passionfruit, with rum, Dijon mustard, Chartreuse and an egg white.
San Francisco, CA
A hidden bar can open anywhere, so why not in a sprawling San Francisco arcade? Within gaming destination Coin-Op is a reservations-only bar accessed through a side entrance and a service staircase; step through a faux Tron arcade cabinet, and you’ll find The Grid. Mirroring the sense of playfulness, cocktails are whimsical but often cutting-edge, like the God's Water: bittersweet vermouth, house lemongrass tonic, edible flowers, mint, peppermint chlorophyll and mineral water, served in an infusion vessel over a blue ice cube.
Birds & Bees
Los Angeles, CA
Duck into a downtown alley, and you’ll find your way to the hidden entrance of Birds & Bees, tucked beneath the Broadway Media Center. Inside, a you'll find cocktail den that nods to the 50s—cocktails inspired by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball—though the menu is hardly stuck in the past, featuring modern-day classics and bespoke cocktails invented on the spot.
Below French bistro Chez Moi waits a decadent cocktail lounge with a Marie Antoinette-inspired aesthetic, all low light and sumptuous red velvet. Franky Marshall’s cocktails are appropriately lavish and beautifully presented, from the Dauphin (absinthe, chile liqueur, almond milk, coconut) to the Jardin Royale (tequila, dry vermouth, Pamplemousse, lavender soda).
The website lists only a telephone number; but since this is the 21st century, don’t think about calling. A text is the way to score a reservation at this clandestine establishment. Ring the golden doorbell, and you’ll discover a midcentury lounge with both ambitious cocktails and precisely poured throwback classics.
Los Angeles, CA
It’s a journey: Wander through the Glass Hookah Lounge, step through a bookcase, find the right door, take a few steps down, and you’ll be rewarded with an intimate, low-lit space that happens to serve excellent cocktails. Opt for something fresh and lively like the Melrose Station (St. George Green Chile vodka, lime, agave) or the showstopper Oh Mai Flaming Tai, an elaborate mai tai variation that arrives set aflame.
The Broken Dram
With an entrance behind a bookshelf and an exit into a back alley, The Broken Dram is truly a bar within a bar. Stationed within Blyth & Burrows in the city’s Old Port, it’s a dark, moody contrast to its airy, light-filled counterpart, serving highballs and small cocktail drams named after tragic couples: the Kurt & Courtney, the Elvis & Priscilla.
The Elk Room
Stroll through the outdoor terrace of restaurant Tagliata, string lights twinkling overhead, before finding the unmarked black door whose doorbell can gain you admission to The Elk Room. Under lead bartender Shaun Stewart, mixologists craft cutting-edge cocktails that make use of novel techniques: smoked wood chips to impart flavor to drinks, liquid nitrogen frozen mint that stays bright green even when muddled.
The Back Bar at Young Joni
Preferring the term back bar to speakeasy, this second venue behind popular restaurant Young Joni is marked by a red neon light. Inside, it’s quirky and relaxed, inspired by co-owner Conrad Leifur's family cabin in North Dakota, with rough barn walls, mismatched chairs and nostalgic decor (including his family piano). Adam Gorski’s drinks are relaxed and playful, like his Paloma with chile and mescal we could drink all night.
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