Psst! Do you want to know a secret? Can you believe that I entered a bar through a telephone booth? Oh, and you can’t just open the door and walk in. You have to identify yourself first by speaking into the receiver and wait for the permission to pass. As futuristic as it might sound – this happened in 2012 New York City, in a telephone booth installed in a hot dog place in the East Village. Do you promise to keep mum out of this? Welcome to the world of the Speakeasies.
Death & Company, Photo via Guest of a Guest
Just to get this straight from the beginning: As sketchy as it might seem, those types of bars are perfectly legal. What is now a nostalgic reference was serious business in the United States of the 1920s. Prohibition, which took effect in 1920 and lasted for about 13 years, put a ban on the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor to protect citizens from “intoxicating beverages”. As a result, secret bars opened up – the Speakeasies – hidden in basements in dark side streets, behind bulky doors and dimly lit corridors, without any sign of their existence. To enter these illegal taverns, guests were required to whisper (“speak easy”) a password or the name of the person who had sent them.
As dangerous as visits to those original Speakeasies could be – some sold poisonous mixtures of homemade liquor which eventually killed several hundreds – there still is a fascination with the exclusiveness of those secret establishments. In recent years, more and more modern renditions of such locals have opened, offering a nostalgic look back at what might have been the more fascinating side of the Speakeasies: unmarked entrances, dated decor, and unusual, innovative drinks.
While some of the new Speakeasies are well known among locals, some don’t maintain websites or don’t even publish phone numbers. Just as in the old days, they rely on the word of mouth – so be sure to keep your ears open. If you don’t have the time to go explore the nightlife yourself and hunt for the right adresses, try sneaking into Please Don’t Tell (113 St. Marks Place), one of the best of the bunch, hiding behind a public telephone booth inside Crif’s Hotdogs.
At Death & Company (433 East 6 Street) everyone gets a seat, even if that means they had to wait for a couple of hours before being let inside. This may not be the place to bring your whole birthday crew, instead it’s a safe bet for a chilled-out night in mellow lighting and excellent cocktails. If the place is full, you’ll be requested a cell phone number and someone will ring you once a spot has opened up for you.
The Back Room (102 Norfolk Street) is a favorite amongst speakeasy fans, hiding behind the allure of a toy store front. The interior is true to the 20s era, complete with velvet paisley wallpaper and swanky chandeliers. Like back in the days, booze is served in tea cups while beer gets handed to you in a paper bag. On a more contemporary note, lots of big names have known to pass some records at this exclusive joint. Inside tip: make friends with the owners and they might let you sneak into the hidden back room.
The Back Room, Photo via New York Magazine
Supposedly singer John Mayer swears by La Esquina (106 Kenmare, NoLita) hiding in the basement of the brightly lit Corner Deli on the intersection of Kenmare Street and Cleveland Place. While upstairs they serve hot dogs and burgers, the exclusive restaurant-bar downstairs dishes up Mexican cuisine to an elegant Soho crowd. The door is harsh and reservations for dinner are obligatory.
Sounds intriguing? Find some more suggestions for NYC’s top speakeasy adresses here.
Cordula Schaefer is a photography enthusiast who loves to venture out to explore new places and hardly ever leaves the house without a camera. A New Yorker at heart, she is especially fond of city trips and has a soft spot for beautiful beachscapes. She currently bases herself in Berlin and keeps the visual documents of her travels at Cordugram.