Speakeasies: Not Just a Thing of the Past

Speakeasy Vibe

They say the past always comes back, and trends tend to be in a cycle, coming around again in new and different ways. While that doesn’t mean you should save your old day-glo spandex, it does mean that speakeasies, the trend from the 1920s, are back. Cities are seeing a growing trend of underground nightclubs and bars, revealed only to those with the inside information. This time there’s nothing these bars and nightclubs really have to hide, since Prohibition ended a long time ago. But that’s not stopping nostalgic organizers from recreating a little piece of the past.

The trend can be pinpointed to Milk and Honey, the first faux speakeasy, according to Zagat.com’s guide to New York dining. It opened in New York City in 2000. The owners thought it would be a way to attract a grown-up crowd, or those looking for some exclusivity in their nightlife. According to New York Magazine’s website, the owner, Sasha Petraske, started his business with the desire to have a place where “even a nice nobody could feel like royalty.” The unlisted number and address only go to “mellow, non-famous folk.” Sasha’s bar is even equipped with a surveillance system, to make sure no one gets in who isn’t welcome.

The novelty of this idea caught on, and underground or “secret” bars have become a hot commodity in large cities all over, even London and Tokyo.  Even more have appeared in the last year or two, and they’ve become very talked-about among the savviest of nightlife participants.

Owners of these faux speakeasies take all measures they can to make the clubs exclusive, and, like in the 1920s, hard to find and masquerading as something else. In New York, the imaginative ideas of these bar and club owners include disguising the front as someone’s home, or a psychic parlor, and having a phone number that only certain people are given, which is changed every few months. Don’t assume you’ll have an automatic in with celebrity ties or upscale heritage, either. Most of these places won’t let you in unless you have an appointment, reservation, or password, whether you’re famous or not.

Milk and Honey, for example, is by appointment only. It even has rules such as “a lady may not be approached by anyone she didn’t arrive with,” and “don’t bring anyone you wouldn’t want to leave alone in your house for a day.” There’s a phone number needed to call for a reservation; once called, you get put on a waiting list and you’re called back when there is a time available to accommodate you. The only way to get this number is by asking someone who knows; or, you could hang around outside the bar and try to get someone to take you in with them. 

In San Francisco, Bourbon and Branch aims to be a comfortable place to hang out. Behind an unmarked door is a reservation-only space (due to the small size, as with many of these old-fashioned bars) decorated with a tin ceiling and red “velvet” papered walls. The Back Room, in Los Angeles, fronts as The Lower East Side Toy Company, and to get in it takes a walk down a down a back alley, a wink at a peek hole, and a bookcase to slide aside, revealing the VIP room.  Hummingbird to Mars in Washington D.C. and Greenville Ave Speakeasy in Dallas all follow similar themes. Another New York underground bar, Chumley’s, was actually a real speakeasy in the 1920s.

At many of these places the beer is served in brown paper bags, and the cocktails in teacups, to “fool the cops.” And those cocktails are what many of these exclusive clubs brag about. The vintage-style drinks are made with fresh ingredients at most speakeasy locations and many of them claim to be the freshest drinks in town, with pages of yummy ingredients available.  The cocktails are different everywhere, and each of these faux speakeasies has their own specialties. Hummingbird to Mars has a drink called “Delaware Fisherman’s Punch” which includes rum, cognac, lemon and lime juice, honey syrup and grated nutmeg. Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco has a drink called Rouge No. 10—black pepper infused Tanqueray 10, muddled strawberries, and Pastis.

Think this sounds exciting? You don’t have to be a specific type of person to get in. There are a few tips for finding these places. Many of them can be found online by searching for “speakeasies” along with a preferred city. With just a bit more searching, many addresses can be found online, too. Milk and Honey even has a website, although it doesn’t reveal too much information.

If you go searching the streets, you have to keep an eye out. Remember, most have unmarked doors and are usually masquerading as some other type of business.

Once you find a speakeasy in your area, getting an appointment or knowing the right password or trick to get in is a different story. In an article on New York’s underground scene from the UK’s The Guardian, Tessa Souter suggests one way of doing it is to talk to other people. If you get into one faux speakeasy, the people there may know how to get into other speakeasies. To get into one in the first place, try talking to people in some of the local bars; many of the locals may know the number. There’s always that previously mentioned option of hanging around outside one and hoping someone will take you in with them.

It’s usually a hunt to find one, but most bar-goers will say the chase is worth it. Keep your ear to the ground and your eyes open, and you might just luck out and get into one.

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