I had never heard of a speakeasy before moving to New York, but I’d be a big fat liar if I claimed indifference towards their mystique and promise of exclusivity.
Why go to a regular bar when you can jump through hoops to get in somewhere predicated on being too cool for most?
That Groucho Marx was an astute guy.
I won’t focus too much on the drinks themselves since a) Yelp will be a much better resource in that department; b) as many of you know I can nurse a single drink for hours on end so my sample size is rather limited; and c) the “mixologists” at most of these places are skilled enough to craft customized concoctions, and some do away with the menu entirely. Expect to spend $15-$20 a round and don’t forget to check if it’s cash only before you head out.
In order of preference…
Raines Law Room
If you have a significant other in your life, take him/her to Raines Law Room ASAP. We’re talking plush sofas in rich eggplant hues, velvet curtain partitions, and a jazzy “The Girl From Ipanema” soundtrack.
And if you don’t, go anyway and temper your self-loathing singledom with a drink or three.
The coolest part of the space is the open bar/kitchen area where you can watch (and smell) the drinks being made. I thought my Grapefruit Collins was divine, but then again I’m quite partial to citrus.
They take email reservations Sunday – Tuesday and are first-come, first-serve the rest of the week.
Milk and Honey
Most of M&H’s neighbors on Eldridge appear to be either boarded up and closed down or abandoned and graffitied over. The only indication you’ve reached the right place is the nondescript “M + H” stickering on the door and the camera overhead.
Nonetheless, this is probably the best setting to actually have a conversation and enjoy the company of the people you’re with. The booths are designed so that each party has its own visual and auditory space, you can “speak easy” and still be heard. Coat hooks line the narrow hallway and 1920’s ditties reminiscent of the accompaniment to Sleep No More play over the sound system.
In her mannerisms and choice of messy upswept bun, our waitress reminded me of Helena Bonham Carter. Trust me and just go with the Bee’s Kiss for your first drink. Unless you’re deathly allergic to honey, in which case take a sip of someone else’s because it’s that good.
The staff here is exemplary and what sets this place apart. They’re professional, courteous, and most critically, non-pushy. They didn’t get all in a tizzy when half our party moved on (ahem PDT) but let us finish our drinks at our leisure.
Though not publicized, reservations are taken by email.
The bartenders here know what they’re doing. And even if they don’t, they look like it because they’re Japanese and sport wickedly well-trimmed facial hair.
I’ve never dropped by and not had to wait, even on a week night. But it’s hard to begrudge the place when the hostess checks in every few minutes and showers you with typical Asian apologeticness. Pretty sure she would start apologizing for being tall and having long hair if you let her go on.
The 14-page menu is a bit overwhelming if you don’t have a spirit in mind. I’d like to try a Japanese whiskey based drink if I go back, but their Stormy Weather is best in class. It’s served in a graceful copper mug (yeah, I just described a mug as graceful, don’t judge until you see it) that’ll bring back memories of campfires, hot chocolate, and appropriately enough, summer thunderstorms.
Surprised to see that they were promoting a sponsored drink of sorts with Bacardi. I’m not a liquor connoisseur by any stretch, but it seems obvious even to me that the benefits of the promotion fall mostly to one side.
EO gives PDT a run for its money in terms of coolest speakeasy front. Give a wave to the physic sitting in the entryway, who’ll pull back the curtains on your future for a mere $20 fee.
You can debate the fortune teller’s predictions over dinner, sitting beneath a greenhouse roof that filters in natural lighting. People come here for the drinks but the food was surprisingly good. Xenia and I savored refreshing Pimm’s Cup and Ginger Smash cocktails while snacking on pumpernickel bread with tzatziki inspired dressing. Both of our mains—duck confit and asparagus salads—were exactly what we wanted in a light meal. The duck confit is a particularly good deal for $14, with generous portions of shredded leg meat. Fellow Philadelphians will be excited to know they offer Capogiro for dessert; we ended up going with the poached apple tufahija, a twist on a classic Bosnian treat that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.
I’m not sure this Tribeca establishment actually qualifies as a speakeasy, but the entrance is unmarked which has to give it some posh points. Apparently the bartenders here were trained by the head mixologist at M&H, and they welcome customized drink requests.
The Sugarman’s Oysters come with rave reviews.
Please Don’t Tell
Fronting as: a hot dog store. Well, a Crif Dog store, to be exact. What the heck is a crif dog? I still have no idea. I couldn’t quite get over the “bacon-wrapped and deep-fried” part of the description. And somehow David Chang and Momofuku kimchi inserted themselves in there as well.
Anyways, PDT probably has the most involved initiation process. Yelpers lament the 20 required phone calls made at 3 pm on the day of your intended visit for those attempting to secure a reservation. We lucked out of this rigmarole thanks to a friend who had to back out of her reservation at the last minute.
Round two is actually making it inside. The novelty of stepping in the phone booth, dialing the rotary phone, and watching the tufted black door swing open is pretty cool the first time. But then you’re greeted by the progeny of Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga, aka the hostess who sincerely believes she has the most difficult job in the world and “Jeez, just hold on a minute, I’m cleaning your table!”
Inside, you’ll find a lot of decorative taxidermy. One particular bear at the end of the bar provides the perfect dramatic backdrop for the more theatrically inclined.
I seriously considered the bacon infused bourbon (described as having a smoky aftertaste) but was glad I went with the Rosemary Society recommended by our suspenders-wearing waiter.
The bartenders are cute and will playfully correct your offhand comment about musical chairs (they’re technically stools).
Don’t use the bathroom here unless you really need to go. There’s barely enough room to get your business done.
My experience here will always be memorable for reasons unrelated to the venue itself, but that’s a story for another day. Tucked in an L-bend alley somewhere in Chinatown, Apotheke, as its name would suggest, groups its menu by “prescription”: pain killers, stimulants, aphrodisiacs, etc. So come here with an ailment worth curing and an adventurous spirit. Waitstaff input might actually be useful here given the range of somewhat arcane flavors, e.g. Shiso leaf, taro root, pickled okra, and fennel oil essence.
The music was a bit loud but I forgave the volume thanks to a decent mix of Adele, Carla Bruni, and Modest Mouse.
Be sure to stop in the restroom before you leave. The decor carries through nicely and I was a big fan of the sleekly minimalist basin sink and spout.
Though it’s definitely not the only speakeasy situated below street level, Little Branch has a decidedly subterranean feel thanks to ultra dim lighting, exposed concrete floors, and sequestered high-backed booths.
I stuck with variants on a theme of mojito all night and was decently pleased. The drinks are strong enough to make you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Extra points for service that was refreshingly laid-back and low-key. From the bouncer to the bartender to the server, you don’t get the feeling any of them thinks their job automatically makes them more interesting than the next person.
Death + Co.
I think if this had been the first speakeasy I visited in the city, my impression might have been more favorable. As it were, the decor (chandeliers and high-back leather tufted booths? been there, seen that) struck me as uninspired. The Paddy Melt I ordered on recommendation of the bartender was a notch above average, nothing to swoon over.
I would have liked to sample the much yelped about truffle mac & cheese, but their recent C grade sanitary rating stayed my hand. The drinks are fine, I rationalized, because the bar is totally separate from the kitchen, right? And besides, I can see the action going on in front of me. These are the excuses that go through your head when you have two weeks left in New York City and a bucket list to check off.
The doormen at Death + Co. deserve a hat tip—no shortage of pleasant, smile-filled interactions to take the sting off of a 90 minute wait.
I guess the only thing that really qualifies The Tippler as a speakeasy is its unmarked entrance, assuming you’re not counting the bright bulbs of the “OPEN” sign above the door. The establishment is apparently a frequent Googler haunt, which makes sense given its proximity to their NY offices.
Descend a flight of stairs to enter a cavernous bar with ample seating for groups and a decent-sized dance floor. The vibe here is definitely more high energy if the pumping music doesn’t tip you off to this right away. Stick with a low maintenance drink order; I made the mistake of asking for a Corpse Revivier which took the bartender 15 minutes to make and came with a bill steep enough to invoke the dead.
Slide open the door at the back of this real barber shop in Alphabet City, and you’re equally likely to find yourself bumping elbows with a middle-aged Jersey housewife celebrating her birthday, a plump Australian conversing at the bar, or a cadre of “tough” hipsters dressed as if they rode their motorcycles over instead of taking the L.
The banquette seating inside is sparse; if you’re a group it might be worth making a reservation to snag the sweet library nook in the back. The combination of ultra dim lighting, hip hop blasting from the DJ booth, and the spacious area in front of the bar, hints at the occasional dance party. It’s definitely the rowdiest speakeasy I’ve been to so far.
For my fellow menu skimmers, just a heads up that the Sweeney Todd contains an entire raw egg.
Fronting as: Stone Street Coffee. If dancing in a copper bathtub in public is on your bucket list, go to Bathtub Gin. Drinks are sub-par though they’ll still set you back quite a few pretty pennies. Great DJ when we stopped by on a Friday night but good grief it was LOUD. We were shouting at each other from across the table barely two feet apart. This is probably best as a second or third stop of the night, when it’s less about quality drinks and more about let’s-dance-with-strangers. This is also one of those places with an awkward bathroom attendant (gotta feel for the guy).
On the plus side, it is close to Artichoke’s.
The Back Room
Bouncer: “Are you guys 25?”
Us: “Um, no.”
Bouncer: “Sorry, you gotta be 25 or older.”
Us: “Ok.” *Shrug and start to walk away*
Bouncer: “Uh, wait. Actually it’s fine, come on in.”
Us: “Ok.” *Admire cool alley way entrance*
Us: *Make faces at the overwhelmingly strong drinks served in awkward-to-hold teacups and beer bottles served in brown paper bags* *Wonder if the owners think the portraits of naked women on the walls justify the pseudo 25 and up age limit*