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Speakeasies were secret and hidden bars where the people in the knowledge were able to go to have a drink during the Prohibition years, which began in 1920 and ended in 1933. During that time, the manufacture, sale, and even transportation of alcoholic beverages was declared illegal throughout the United States.
By the end of the 30’s there were more than 30,000 speakeasies in New York City selling illegal alcoholic beverages.
Those original speakeasies had little in common with today’s trendy and luxury ones. In fact, they usually were just hidden rooms or small places with a few bottles of barely drinkable home-made spirits.
Anyway, that old-timey feeling of exclusivity and secrecy had found its way into our days thanks to a few places that started a couple of decades ago to recreate that ambiance including details like the hidden entrances, wood and vintage décor, and a smart variety of drinks.
The success of those pioneers led to the new breed of speakeasies that has arised during the last decade.
Even when most of those exclusive locals have websites and Twitter accounts, they’re still disguised or concealed, so the hard part is finding these hidden hotspots. This time I’ll do all the work for you.
The renowned (thus not-secret-at-all)
Please Don’t Tell
This supposedly “secret” bar is now one of the most famous in the world.
Anyway, it is actually hidden behind a phone booth in Crif Dogs, so it still retains some of the basic “access obstacles” to be consider a speakeasy –in the sense of a discrete, private place-.
OK, now comes the experience that feels awesome the first time you try it: once inside the booth, you have to dial 1 and wait until the hostess answers the phone.
If you have a reservation or there’s no wait for a place, the back wall of the booth will open, letting you enter to an intimate and comfortable lounge, dimly lit with single lights and decorated with taxidermy animals.
Once seated, you can choose from a variety of elaborate cocktails and the special menu of Crif Dogs. Or just ask the friendly and skillful bartenders to suggest you the best options.
Since the place is famous and not too big, it’s advisable to make a reservation.
It will be wise to call just when they start to take reservations for the day –about 3:00 PM-, and keep redialing until you succed.
And ask to be seated at the bar so you have the bartender near.
113 St. Marks Place
The Back Room
In my opinion, the second iconyc speakeasy in NYC.
As in PDT, secrecy has gone away a long time ago…
Once you reach Norfolk St. you’ll surely keep going back and forth for a while searching for the famous toy store façade, until you finally find the low metal gate marked “Lower East Side Toy Co.”.
Great, that’s a signal that you’re in the right place.
So push the gate aside and start going down into a quite creepy alleyway, go through this obscure, dim alley -perhaps following another people also heading to the same place-, and then go up a flight of stairs and open the dark door to enter TBR.
You’ll be received by an intense red and medium wood décor, Victorian couches and a wood stair leading to a mezzanine. To enhance the atmosphere, the bartenders deliver the beer bottles masked in brown paper bags and a great selection of Prohibition-styled cockails served in ceramic teacups.
There’s even a VIP room hidden behind a trick bookcase.
102 Norfolk St.
Lower East Side
Death & Co.
Another widely known bar, thus not hidden, nor secret. But D&C still deserves its place in this list too.
You can easily spot it by its name written in metal letters on the concrete base on 6th Street, the wooden door and the wooden panels replacing windows.
They work on a “first-come, first-served” basis and offer strong drink choices like the Tug of War -Beefeater Gin based- or the Moonlight Sonata -Tyrconnel Single Malt Whisky based-, and some delicious “bites” like the Truffle Mac -cave aged Cheddar and black truffle- or the Heirloom Beet Salad -beet, goat cheese, orange, and almonds-.
433 East 6th Str.
Raines Law Room
Go to West 17th St., where you’ll find an unmarked stairwell.
Head down, ring the doorbell, and just hope there’s no wait for a table.
If you are lucky, a host will take you into an underground den with couches everywhere, soft music from the 20’s, and lamp strings to call your waiter to take your order.
No, don’t look for it, you´ll not find a bar: drinks are prepared in a beautiful but half-hidden back room.
A quite austere cocktail list includes a few classics and some original drinks, like the Mexican Firing Squad Special or the stronger Self Starter.
It’s usually a “first come, first served” service, but if you want to make a reservation – no reservations on Friday and Saturday- you must email specifying time, number of people in your party and contact phone number.
48 W 17th St.
One of the coziest speakeasies in the city, since only parties no greater than four are allowed.
First, find the Japanese restaurant Village Yokocho and look for an unmarked side door at the front of it, then walk through it and head upstairs to the final destination: a cosy small bar featuring one of the best whiskey selections in Manhattan, soft jazz music, Japanese bartenders dressed in jacket and tie, and a wood-paneled bar with large windows facing Stuyvesant St.
If the bar gets crowded, you may try to get a table at the chill and quieter -and small- back lounge.
To drink, ask for the Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, the Stormy Weather, or the sweeter Cheek to Cheek -kind of a dessert in a glass-.
8 Stuyvesant St.
Easy to find, since it is located behind a bright psychic sign, it’s well known for being available for very late-night eats (I mean really late, you may ask for some of the small plates even at 3:00 or 4:00 am) and its first class mixology, served by experienced bartenders wearing white chef’s jackets.
In addition to the great cocktails, the food menu is something not to miss.
Go for the classics : Bone Marrow Poppers with Pastry Shell and Bordelaise or Oysters on the Half Shell
with Mignonette and EO Bloody Mary Mix, to side a Mata Hari or a Lazy Lover drink.
The tarot card reader at the door will actually do live readings for guests.
On weekends seating in the bar can be a bit tricky, so if you really need to be sit, try to show up earlier to secure a place.
510 Hudson St.
The strong newcomers
This place is noticeable only thanks to the chemist sign outside its door.
That chemist theme runs throughout the place: the bar holding hundreds of antique medicine bottles, the bartenders wearing lab coats, and the list of over 200 cocktails divided in categories like “Health and Beauty”, “Stimulants”, “Pain Killers”, “Aphrodisiacs” and so on, most of them elaborated with the produce of their own rooftop herbs garden.
Try the Deal Closer -Cucumber, vodka, local chinatown aphrodisiacs, mint, lime and vanilla essence- or the Smoking Jacket -Single malt scotch, spice bitters and agave honey-.
If you’re anxious to taste Absinthe, they claim to have a few ancient recipes.
But don´t be too excited : the Absinthe approved in the USA is not like the full-strenght French one, but more like a lightened version. So I suggest you not to expect the green fairy…
Live jazz bands on Mondays and Tuesdays.
9 Doyers St.
Once you arrived to Elderidge St. look for the place with a steel door with “AB” on it and a neon “A” in the window; then ring the buzzer to be let into the dark drinking den.
Perhaps the best feature of this bar is the lack of a drink menu. Instead, the bartender will ask you what types of drinks or spirits you usually like, to get a sense of your preference in flavors, usually delivering something special and to your own taste.
Or just try the signature Penicillin, a blend of Laphroaig 10-year –a famous single malt Scotch whisky-, honey-ginger syrup and lemon.
134 Elderidge St.
Lower East Side
Go to the back of the counter in West Village Five Guys. No, go further back…
There you’ll find a surreptitious stair leading to the second-floor loft.
Go upstairs, and discover The Garret : glass chandeliers, a fireplace, a well-stocked bar and even a taxidermy rhino head in a private party room.
The cocktail menu—about a dozen drinks—is divided between classics (manhattan, gimlet, negroni) and house creations like the First Lady -gin, matcha green tea, egg white- or Hey Girl -mezcal, fraise de bois, prosecco-.
And make a trip to the bathroom, at least to see the maddening door knobs.
TG also serves an exclusive selection of Five Guys’ burgers you’ll not find at any other location.
296 Bleecker St.
From the same owners of Raines Law Room.
The stunning decor transports you through four different historical eras:
– 1961: JFK room with ’60s style leather seats, plaques containing JFK quotes and vintage ashtrays.
– 1923: F. Scott Fitzgerald room, with glittering crystal drapes and tuft sofas.
– 1857: Abraham Lincoln room with velvet couches and dark wood.
– 1772: The final “Marie Antoinette”room. Behind closed doors, it’s private and decorated with French chandeliers, sofas and its wallpaper is full of old sexual cartoons.
A distinctive feature : each table has a tiny buzzer button on the wall to summon your waiter.
To try : the Vice Versa -Gin, grapefruit, bitter, Pamplemousse liqueur and cava rosée.
A perfect date spot, but just bright enough to go with friends. Reservation is advisable.
55 Irving Pl.
The best sake speakeasies
You just have to go downstairs, so it’s hard to miss it.
Quiet and intimate, this is one of the best Sake restaurants and bars.
They have an extensive selection of sake, from the Takumi to the Kansansui, from the Tobiroku to the Hannya Tou, with a good lineup of appetizers, sashimi and small dishes.
You can’t go wrong with the salmon salad or the Nikujaga stew.
240 E 9th St.
Less known than Decibel, you’ll have to work to find this midtown sake den.
First, go through the unmarked lobby of the office building at 43rd. St., and then head downstairs and walk along the basement corridor.
You’ll find a small, quiet room decorated in light colored wood and bamboo, where you can choose from more than 200 types of sake, and the predictable list of Japanese food.
211 E 43rd St.
As with any list, some great places had to be left out, in order to keep it restrained and manageable. And even doing so, the final list ended being larger than what the usual visitor would be able to achieve within a few days.
So choose those bars suitable for your taste, and try a few drinks in a unique, different atmosphere.
Take your time, enjoy the ambiance, drink slowly to enjoy your drinks, and taste every bite of your meals…
Just remember : “Life is about the journey, and not the destination”.