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  • Writer's pictureAlbert C

Manhattan's "Secret" Speakeasies

With the temperature in New York falling into the teens, it’s tempting to retreat to a bar and settle in. And when your regular haunts start to feel a bit stale, it might be time to consider a place with a little more glamour.

The name ‘speakeasy’ means ‘speak softly’—to avoid police raids. Speakeasies were selling illegal liquor long before Prohibition, but America’s 1920 ban on alcohol gave them new purpose. Nowadays, of course, speakeasies are legal (mostly) and focus on beautifully crafted cocktails, retro decor, and stylish spaces, not to mention the thrill of drinking in a secret location. While mainstays like Death & Company and the relocated Milk & Honey continue to deliver, there are always secret (or really, “secret”) new discoveries to make.

Angel’s Share, 8 Stuyvesant Street

An early arrival on the NYC speakeasy scene, getting to Angel’s Share requires walking through a Japanese restaurant in the East Village, climbing a staircase, and opening a plain door at the top. Known as a date spot, Angel’s Share is a place for a quiet drink. The ground rules are strict: no photography, raised voices, or groups larger than four, and no standing. There are no reservations, so there can be a wait on busy nights, but your patience will be rewarded by sashimi bar snacks, as well as cocktails whose flavors can include lychee, plum, and smoke.

Apotheke, 9 Doyers Street

Located on a street once known as Chinatown’s ‘Bloody Angle,’ Apotheke takes its theme seriously. It calls its cocktails ‘prescriptions’ and its labcoated bartenders ‘chemists.’ The password to enter the bar is tweeted once a month. Apotheke also has what it calls a ‘farm-to-bar’ ideology: it sources its ingredients locally and organically and even grows some of them. All of which would risk being gimmicky without the raved-about cocktails and lavish decor to justify all the effort. Apotheke also teaches regular mixology courses, for those interested in knowing how it’s done.

Attaboy, 134 Eldridge Street

This one is hidden behind an unmarked steel door on a gloomy Lower East Side block. Knock or buzz—politely—and find a space at the long, narrow bar. The space is simple and unpretentious, but the drinks certainly don’t suffer as a result. Attaboy doesn’t have menus, but it’s more fun to give the bartender an ingredient and a sense of your taste and watch magic happen.

Back Room, 102 Norfolk Street

The Back Room is a speakeasy for real: it’s one of only two Prohibition-era bars still running in the city (the 21 Club is the other). It’s no longer a hangout for gangsters, but the entrance now is just as it was then: through a metal gate with a sign the reads ‘Lower East Side Toy Co’, down an alley, up some stairs. And while it has a liquor licence these days, the Back Room still serves drinks in teacups and beers in paper bags. The Back Room also has its own back room, hidden behind a bookcase, but anyone who knows what goes on back there isn’t telling.

Bathtub Gin, 132 9th Ave between 18th & 19th Streets

If you’ve ever been curious about the tiny size of Stone Street Coffee Company in Chelsea, come back late at night. The line that often runs through the store and into the street is not for coffee—it’s for the speakeasy hidden behind the wall. Bathub Gin is a big, dark, Prohibition-themed space with a lush interior. It lives up to its name—there really is bathtub (often with someone in it) and an array of gin-themed cocktails on the extensive menu.

Blind Barber, 339 East 10th Street

Blind Barber blurs the boundaries between drinking and grooming—it’s a legitimate barber shop out front (where you can enjoy a drink while getting your hair trimmed) with a bar behind an imposing-looking door at the back. Blind Barber is no longer exactly a secret, since they’ve expanded to locations in L.A. and Brooklyn as well. The menu features drinks such as the Smoke and Dagger and Sweeney Ted.

The Grain, 893 Broadway between East 19th & 20th Streets

Down a staircase behind a hidden door at a Korean restaurant in Flatiron, this basement whiskey bar offers an unpretentious space to drink. The Korean-fusion food menu includes bulgogi tacos, burgers with kimchi and Vermont cheddar, and soy garlic chicken wings. Classic cocktails like Manhattans and Sazeracs feature prominently on the drinks menu.

Little Branch, 20 7th Avenue South between Carmine & Leroy Streets

Identified only by a flag and an unpromising-looking metal door, this basement bar is dim and intimate. The booths are ideal for both drinking, flirting, and listening to the jazz band. There is a menu, but it’s more fun to let the bartender know what you like and let them take care of the rest. Be warned that seating is somewhat limited and there can be a line, and it is cash only.

PDT, 113 St Mark’s Place

The East Village location of Crif Dogs contains a phone booth. The phone in the booth does not make calls: it only dials PDT, the speakeasy behind the booth, and if you ask nicely, the waitstaff will let you in. PDT stands for Please Don’t Tell, and it’s a cozy, usually crowded space distinguished by the stuffed animals mounted on the walls, the deep-fried hot dogs, and the drinks—it was recently named as an All-Time Achiever on Drinks International’s best bars list. Given its popularity and small size, reservations are strongly recommended.

Speakeasies may not be selling cheap bootleg liquor any more, but it’s still wise to drink responsibly! And if you see a freezing 2 a.m. wait for a cab in your future, plan ahead and reserve your ride home in advance.

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