Speakeasies. They are, by definition, a little anachronistic. Although Prohibition ended long ago, drinking in secretive elegance will never really go out of style.
Today’s speakeasy-style bars use the secretiveness that was necessary for their Prohibition-era predecessors to give imbibers a feeling of exclusivity, and they often add vintage-inspired uniforms and accoutrements to give one a feeling of old-fashioned formality.
These bars also happen to be at the center of a national resurgence of interest in serious, creative cocktails, and the quality of the drinks served at these clandestine establishments can make one feel like the holder of an important secret. A few of these bars also happen to be perfect places to spend the dreary months of winter: cozy spots full of polished wood and metal where tattooed girls serve well-dressed people concoctions mixed by mustachioed experts. Here are a few places to hunker down until Spring.
Hotel Delmano—Brooklyn, NY
Some people have voiced surprise that an old-fashioned, serious cocktail bar has opened in Brooklyn, as though Williamsburg is not the most natural place in the world for a speakeasy, since these places are inherently a little bit steam-punk. The crowd at Hotel Delmano is more casual and a little less glamorous than you will find at speakeasy-style bars in Manhattan, but the service is more welcoming and the drinks less pricy, although still very serious. The drinks menu is creatively old school—the house cocktails contain interesting flourishes, but they don’t mix too many liquors or flavors that one wouldn’t expect to see together, and this is probably a good thing, since excessive cocktail experimentation almost always produces unidentifiable swill.
But the real selling point at Hotel Delmano is the atmosphere. The bar’s main room is a friendly place, meant to evoke a private club, hidden behind frosted glass. Black-and-white portraits of bearded men look down at the assembled drinkers, giving each bourbon or gin concoction a vague aura of tradition.
Manhattan has more speakeasy-style bars than any other place in America, since space and exclusivity are such valuable commodities in New York’s central borough. Manhattan’s speakeasies all follow a central theme: recognition of the bartender as an artist who carries on a time-honored and dying art, but they vary in atmosphere and quality. Some of these are a little too modern and sleek to be of much comfort in winter (Smith & Mills), and others take the speakeasy theme a little too far, becoming theme parks of things that might have been in real speakeasies, like moody service and moose heads (Please Don’t Tell). Sasha Petraske has built a sort of speakeasy empire, the core of which is Milk & Honey, a bar that is now too well-known and famous to be a speakeasy (its patrons seem more impressed by their ability to get in than with the excellent drinks available to them). Petraske‘s newer, subterranean Little Branch is a better bet this winter than Milk and Honey. It’s a little more relaxed, with a cozier décor.
The Varnish—Los Angeles
Los Angeles wouldn’t seem the most natural place to find a great speakeasy. Most bars and lounges here cater to those who are more interested in being seen than in having an excellent cocktail. Downtown Los Angeles is an area few tourists venture to, which is too bad as it has one of the best speakeasies in the country.
Hidden behind a secret door at the back of Coles restaurant, The Varnish harkens back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, when starlets were tutored by studio heads in the art of manners and diction. Dark wood abounds as do vintage light fixtures. The décor resembles an upscale public house sans the riffraff, with wooden booths surrounding a piano and several tables. Bartenders sport the requisite vests and are uniformly young but act as if they’ve been making cocktails for years. The winter cocktail list is inspired. The Holland Fix and Cable Car are local faves but opt for the “Bartender’s Choice.” You tell the bartender your preferred spirit and he’ll create something unique and delicious. This happens to be an excellent ordering strategy at most speakeasies.
Curio at Gilt Bar—Chicago
Chicago, home of Al Capone, has a number of solid old school establishments that cater to a refined crowd. But since we had to pick one bar in the city, we give kudos to Curio.
Located under Gilt Bar, a popular gastropub on Chicago’s North Side, the new bar—it opened in June 2010—is uniformly dark, with candles casting a warm glow on the environs. Tufted leather banquettes and a rustic communal table dominate the small space. Vintage mirrors reflect the smiling faces of the eclectic and stylish clientele. It’s a mishmash of modern chic and eco-friendly pieces but it somehow works all the same.
The cocktail list is extensive with more than 20 choices. The Southside (gin, mint, lemon and egg whites) is probably the most widely ordered drink on the list but opt for something a little more adventurous such as the Trade Winds, a concoction of rum, apricot liqueur and coconut cream that will have you dreaming of white sand beaches on a cold winter day. Leave your credit card at home. Curio is cash only.
San Francisco—Bourbon & Branch
Many of the country’s most well known speakeasies have been demolished or converted into restaurants and apartments. Bourbon & Branch, in the heart of San Francisco’s once-feared Tenderloin district, is housed in an authentic Prohibition-era speakeasy. This gives its historical trappings more authenticity than those at other speakeasies. And while The Ipswitch may be long gone, its legacy lives on at Bourbon & Branch. The décor showcases perfectly worn wood and leather—drinking amongst a library of leather-bound books is an option—and keeping true to its clandestine roots, Bourbon & Branch gives patrons a list of rules of behavior. Some may seem a bit off-putting but several are welcome, especially the ban on cell phone usage. The bar seems to put as much thought into which rums and whiskeys to offer as other speakeasies put into their cocktail lists. Many of the liquors used are from small, high quality producers and would be difficult to find on your own.
While Bourbon & Branch does a great job at exhibiting true speakeasy characteristics, it can sometimes come at a price – you must have reservations. If your plans are more spur of the moment try the Redwood Room at the Clift Hotel. Getting in should not be a problem and the atmosphere exudes a sense of old-school San Francisco while still being ultra spacious and comfortable.