Tell them we sent you.
According to police, there were more than 32,000 speakeasies in New York City in 1929, nine years into Prohibition. New York Times articles of the day called these illegal hooch houses “one of the outstanding social institutions of New York.”
As you can tell, New Yorkers never really let Prohibition slow them down or dry them out.
Today, thankfully you don’t have to keep your eyes on any secret back doors or hidden passageways to enjoy a cold brew. Manhattan bars are no longer subject to regular police raids –¬ except maybe to flush out those 18-year-old NYU freshmen –¬ but there are still a handful of classy old-time joints that keep the speakeasy tradition alive.
Just don’t tell anybody. It’ll be our little secret.
The Back Room
102 Norfolk St, (btwn. Delancey and Rivington), 212-228-5098
While it doesn’t share the history of bars that were actually open during prohibition, the owners of the Back Room (which include Tim Robbins and Mark Messier) did their research when they opened this speakeasy that fronts as the “Lower East Side Toy Company.” Creep down a back alley to find the entrance, wink at the peek hole, then slide a bookcase aside to reveal the second bar in the VIP room. No one under 25 is allowed in on the weekends, but New York magazine still named this New York’s best secret bar, where drinks are served in teacups and beers in brown paper bags ¬ to fool the police, of course.
Bill’s Gay Nineties
57 East 54th St. (btwn. Madison and Park Aves.), 212-355-0243
Walk through hand-carved swinging doors and backwards through time, as everything in this original speakeasy is just like it was back in the mid-1920s when Bill Hardy first converted a five-story brownstone into one of New York’s most prominent and celebrated speakeasies. Well-worn silver dollars spell out “Bill’s” on the floor, and the same mahogany bar has dominated the floor for over 80 years. Named one of Esquire magazine’s “Best Bars in America” in 2006, Bill’s Gay Nineties (that’s 1890s) boasts three floors of bars, nostalgia and entertainment, with live piano on the first floor Monday through Saturday, and good stiff drinks everywhere.
The East Side Company Bar
49 Essex St. (near Grand St.), 212-614-7408
Deep in the Lower East Side, Milk and Honey owner Sasha Petraske’s second high-profile hideaway is a dark, narrow speakeasy on Chinatown’s fringe. The storefront is practically unmarked save for a tiny gold sign, and you might feel less claustrophobic on the subway at rush hour. A wide variety of tasty drinks and the gorgeous pressed-tin and candlelit interior create a comfortably intimate setting that lends itself to small gatherings, but occasionally gets a bit crowded.
Onieal’s Grand Street
174 Grand St. (btwn. Baxter St. and Centre Market Pl.), 212-941-9119
A secret tunnel once connected this bar to the old police headquarters across the street. The tunnel has been filled in (it’s now the wine cellar), and this once-illegal brothel, speakeasy and gambling parlor is today a hip, refined Soho restaurant ¬ but its history lives on. The basement’s stone walls and bar room¹s carved wood ceiling have remained intact. Even a memorable stint as the bar Scout in “Sex and the City” doesn’t seem to have ruined the place.
113 St. Marks Place (btwn. 1st Ave. and Avenue A), 212-614-2728
Only accessible via a telephone booth inside St. Marks hot dog hot spot Crifdogs, PDT (aka Please Don’t Tell or, according to one pierced Crif counter girl, Porno Dog Tavern) is NYC’s newest speakeasy. Crifdogs owner Brian Shebairo opened the “secret” bar in May, and while it may not be very well hidden, the camera and buzzer setup in its phone booth passageway ensure exclusivity. The décor is made up of faux white leather bar stools and red brick walls, but the real draw is the carefully concocted cocktails by New York barman-about-town Jim Meehan.
Tillman’s Bar & Lounge
165 West 26th St. (btwn. 6th and 7th Aves.), 212-627-8320
Bringing old-school Harlem to Chelsea, Tillman’s is another of the new breed of speakeasy. Behind a pair of anonymous double doors you’ll find beaded curtains, cedar floors, waitresses dressed up in retro cigarette-girl getup, and an expertly mixed classic cocktail menu. Or keep it simple with a pint of Sugar Hill Ale from the tap. Each semicircle banquette in this soulful lounge is set back into its own carved-out recess, glowing with yellow light, but the red-lit raised stage area is the coolest seat in the house, with mod couches and a gas fireplace under a skylight.
This article was published in the September 14-16, 2007 weekend issue of amNewYork.