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Speak Easy: Secret Bars and High-Proof Hideaways

Featured, Offbeat — By Alex Resnik on June 11, 2010 at 6:00 am

They don’t want you to know they’re there. They don’t want you to find them. If you do, there’s a good chance you’re going to need to have a password, knock a requisite number of times, prove your acquaintance with somebody, or hop on one foot. Once inside, however, you’ll be rewarded with a good, stiff drink and the knowledge that you – special little drinker that you are – found the place and are now a member of the elite.

Secret bars, speakeasies, and hidden nightclubs abound (we’re guessing) in this world, and there’s a good chance that you’ll let one pass right under your nose on your next trip. We understand that outing the spots below immediately makes them “so over,” but they’re still good starting points. We’ve delved into the seedy underbellies of several cities to bring you some of the best in back-alley boozing.

Please Don’t Tell

Image: grapesandgrainsnyc.com

Despite the plea in the the very name of this place, it’s been pretty well outed all across the internet, especially on the Yelp!-o-web. So, it’s really no secret that this establishment is an extension of Crif Dogs, local favorite hawkers of deep-fried hot dogs and mayonaise in the East Village. That shouldn’t stop you from trying to score a reservation next time you’re in New York. In fact, we couldn’t imagine a better accompaniment to a night of secrets than the guilty pleasure of deep-fried mayo.

Image: Yelp!

It’s still somewhat of a complicated process to get in. First, you must have a reservation (if not, you can show up and get on the waiting list). Next, you must go to Crif Dogs. Go past the counter, directly to the back of the store. There you’ll find an old phone booth set into the wall. Open it. Walk in, pick up the phone, and you’ll be connected with a screener, who will decide whether you’re qualified to join the elite inside.

Once in, you’ll find a space tricked out in taxidermy, with plush leather booths and wood paneling reminiscent of an old-school hunter’s lodge. Drinks are of the highest quality, and a trip to Please Don’t Tell (PDT) would not be complete without a taste of their bacon-infused bourbon.

The Cabin Down Below

Image: NY Press

Where PDT is located next to a hot dog shop, Cabin Down Below (CDB) is located under a pizza shop; where PDT is through a phone booth, CDB is down a “secret” stairway; where PDT is all mahogany and leather, CDB is concrete and crash couches; where PDT prides itself on fine, crafted cocktails, CDB is all about a Bud and a shot.

CDB takes the hidden bar concept away from the speakeasy theme and proudly exudes an irreverent, laid back ‘tude. The idea is that walking into CDB should be like visiting a friend’s basement: it’s homey and cozy while still being secretive. You might find yourself subconsciously keeping an ear open for the dreaded creak of Dad’s shoe on the top stair.

Image: ny.eater.com

Keep it simple at this subterranean lair: order a beer, try to snag a spot in (yes, in) the oversized fireplace, and schmooze in low tones with the generally couth clientele.

Milk & Honey

Leave it to the Brits to define elitism. Opening in London’s SoHo in 2000, this is the one that started the members-only, speakeasy, secret bar trend that has taken hold of so many cities. Award-winning Milk & Honey has also opened a location in New York’s Lower East Side to appeal to hipsters on the other side of the Pond. The two locations differ slightly: whereas the London location is strictly a members’ club (after 11pm, at least), New York’s digs are open (by reservation only) to anybody who can find them.

Image: NY Magazine

Either way, a visit to Milk & Honey is guaranteed to be a classy affair, and there are rules to make sure it stays that way:

  1. No name-dropping, no star f***ing.
  2. No hooting, hollering, shouting or other loud behaviour.
  3. No fighting, play fighting, no talking about fighting.
  4. Gentlemen will remove their hats. Hooks are provided.
  5. Gentlemen will not introduce themselves to ladies.
  6. Ladies, feel free to start a conversation or ask the bartender to introduce you. If a man you don’t know speaks to you, please lift your chin slightly and ignore him.
  7. Do not linger outside the front door.
  8. Do not bring anyone unless you would leave that person alone in your home. You are responsible for the behaviour of your guests.
  9. Exit the bar briskly and silently. People are trying to sleep across the street. Please make all your travel plans and say all farewells before leaving the bar.

The Rhum Rhum Room

Rumors of a top-secret tiki bar in New York circulated long before anybody could figure out if it even really existed. A dark alley-side entrance, caged macaws, and top-notch rum cocktails painted an intriguing picture that led to enough snooping to finally expose the Rhum Rhum Room for what it is: a “home bar” run by husband and wife rum enthusiasts Joe and Nicole Desmond.

Being designated a home bar means that the Rhum Rhum Room gets around pesky licensing and liquor laws, but it also means that it’s very much off the radar. An internet search will get you no address or phone number (the bar’s website seems to masquerade as an informative, rather than commercial, site), but rather some shady directions: in a dark alley near St. Mark’s Place you’ll find a wrought iron gate. Ring the bell to gain entrance. That’s as much as we can tell you.

Reports of a tropical menagerie and libations like Mai Tais and an intriguing Campari/rum combo known as the Jungle Bird make this a secret begging to be told. So far, however, the collective booze bloggers’ lips are sealed, and the place remains on NY Magazine’s Unsolved Mysteries page. All the more reason to go looking for this place.

Mike’s Apartment

Reportedly drawing such drop-able names as Axl Rose and Will.I.Am (there are unconfirmed rumors of Mick Jagger showing up as well), Mike’s was the place to be during this year’s New York Fashion Week. Mike’s Apartment is an intimate space with a small dance floor and plenty of couches to stretch out on. Smoking is allowed inside and there is no cash bar: bring your own drinks or partake of the beer in the fridge or the bottles strategically placed around the room. One might say that it feels like a friend’s living room because, well, that’s just what it is.

Image: NY Post

You probably can’t get in to Mike’s Apartment. You see, it is the brainchild of Michael Herman, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who, in March of ’09, decided to first start bringing larger parties of late-night revelers back to his pad for drinks. What makes it different from a house party is the regularity of events, the undeniably hip guest list, and the professionalism applied to all aspects of the scene. You might be able to grab a bottle of gin from a table nearby but, unlike your friend’s house party, this place is always stocked with ice and tonic.

Image: NY Post

Mike’s Apartment is unlisted and entrance is by invitation only. “Someone shows up here who is a straggler, and in two minutes we ask, ‘Who are you here with?’,” explains Mike, “If they don’t have an answer we ask them to leave.” It’s as simple as that.

Bourbon and Branch

Records show that a bar of some kind or another has operated at Bourbon and Branch’s Jones St. location continuously since 1867. That includes throughout the years of Prohibition, when it was listed in the phone book variously as “The Ipswitch – A Beverage Parlor” and “J.J. Russell’s Cigar Shop.”

Image: intelligentbartender.com

Bourbon and Branch celebrates this legacy of secrecy with its Prohibition-era-inspired interior – plush red velvet, dark wood, antique furniture, and filigreed ceilings pay homage to a time gone by – and some of the best cocktails in San Francisco. The exterior remains unmarked, other than an unassuming “Anti-Saloon League” sign above the door. Of course there are rules, including no. 7: “Please be patient, our drinks are labor-intensive.” The value of this policy shows through in their carefully crafted concoctions: old-fashioneds, manhattans, and cucumber gimlets, for a start.

Image: yumsugar

Although in the past the speakeasy put patrons through the password rigamarole, it’s now only required if you want to get into the “secret” library behind the classic bookcase doorway. We won’t give out the password here, but we can tell you it’s easy to find on B&B’s website.

Slide

Another place with legit speakeasy roots, Slide bills itself as a “Prohibition playground” on San Francisco’s Mason St. Although the entrance is not exactly a secret (you’ll find a bouncer wrangling a line of partygoers outside the establishment on most nights), you do have the option of taking the bar’s wooden slide – used for Prohibition-era transportation of bootlegged booze – down to the main level.

Image: clubzone.com

Slide ditches many of the more traditional touches found at Bourbon and Branch for a more modern take on upscale drinking. There’s a dance floor and plenty of music pumping through the night. Where Bourbon and Branch might draw kids in spats and the occasional curmudgeoney cocktail connoisseur in the corner, Slide is all about seeing and being seen by San Francisco’s party people.

Secret Salsa

Our series of Concierge Picks blog posts, where we interview a hotel concierge for an inside perspective on their city, has paid off in the form of a seriously (no, seriously) secret spot on the streets of San Francisco:

“If it’s way after last call and you want to keep drinking, go to El Balazo Taqueria on Mission. Next to it is an unmarked door. Stand next to it and eventually, someone will let you in. Inside is a huge warehouse space with scaffolding and a young, mostly latin crowd. They’ll be listening and dancing to Salsa and Merengue in the middle of the room. If you want to keep things a little more private, find a dark corner and camp out on an old couch.”

Image: Eater SF

We here in NileGuide’s San Francisco bureau can’t wait to try this one out. If you end up getting into this dancing den, please don’t keep it to yourself: we’ll have the place full of scene-grubbing hipsters in no ti-… On second thought, do keep it to yourself.

Club 33

Sure there’s plenty at Disneyland to intoxicate the kids (one spin on the teacups should do the trick), but what about adults seeking a little spin themselves? Walt Disney’s answer is Club 33, a super-exclusive bar and club in the theme park’s New Orleans Square. Step up to a green door near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and you should find a number 33 on the wall. This is the only hint of a club inside.

Image: perrific.com

Once in, you’ll take a glass French lift to a lounge that could only happen in Disneyland: New Orleans antiques collected by Walt and his wife sit alongside classic Disney memorabilia: original movie artwork, animation cels, a table used in Mary Poppins, and a harpsichord played by Elton John.

Image: NY Times

Formerly the stuff of legends, Club 33 started in 1967 as a private club where Disney could entertain park sponsors and lessees. Unfortunately for Walt, the club didn’t open until a few months after his death. Fortunately for everybody else, public membership has been available (on an extremely limited basis) ever since.

The Safe House

Image: december.com

New York, San Francisco, Tokyo… Milwaukee? It may seem an unlikely place to host a top-secret bar, but the Safe House on Milwaukee’s North Front Street is nothing if not secretive. Most people will pass by the bar’s unmarked entrance without noticing it. Even if they do, they’ll be greeted with an enigmatic sign: “We import and export between the following hours,” followed by the establishment’s hours of business. Indeed, even the website says nothing about a bar… or anything else, really.

Image: travelpod.com

Getting in to this den of thieves is another story all together: either you know the password or you don’t. If you don’t, you’ll be heckled by the guys at the door and probably forced to do something completely degrading to get in. If you do know the password, you’ll enter the bar to a resounding “booooo!” Why? Because there are CCTVs capturing the humiliation of those not privy to the password outside, providing entertainment for patrons.

Golden Gai

Image: blog.jessleecuizon.com

Our Local Expert in Tokyo (hey, that’s me!) describes Tokyo’s Golden Gai drinking district as “from all outward appearances nothing more than a collection of alleyways lined with tiny, ramshackle bars… lit up with cheap neon signs that set an iconic, old-school Tokyo scene.” So far so good.

Image: bass_nroll/Flickr

The problem is that many of these places are highly exclusive, due both to their extremely small floorspace (some reach capacity at 8 patrons) and their status as neighborhood hangouts, with the expected group of dedicated, exclusive regulars. To get into a Golden Gai establishment, an outsider would be well advised to go with somebody on the inside, or to at least try schmoozing a little at the door in Japanese. Just looking good isn’t going to cut it here.

Bar Roku-Nana

There are no signs or advertisements for this rooftop bar in Tokyo’s posh Roppongi neighborhood. Situated on the third floor, between towering buildings but still affording excellent city views, Bar Roku-Nana (六七; “Six-Seven”) is the latest venture for design firm Glamorous, which also created “secret bar” Imoarai (いもあらい, also in Roppongi).

Image: antenna7.com

Although it’s questionable how “glamorous” Roku-Nana is (clear plastic chairs sitting al fresco atop an office building does not necessarily a fine bar make), it certainly is exclusive, especially for foreigners baffled by Tokyo’s bizarre address system. To help you along, we’ve created a map. You’re welcome.

Tags: bar, club, disneyland, hidden, hidden waterholes, just as cool as prohibition, milwaukee, New York, nightclub, please don't tell, San Francisco, secret, speakeasy, Tokyo, you are responsible for your guest

    3 Comments

  • I have to add the Violet Hour in Chicago. Like some of these other speakeasies, there is no sign (right now, the wall has a big sign that says “Chinese restaurant coming soon”), the cocktails are all handcrafted throwbacks, and the bartenders are seriously talented – I always sit at the bar so I can watch them measure out precise drops of liquids or crack eggs with one hand for drinks with egg white. I also love that it’s “sitting-room only” so it never feels crowded.

  • Christina says:

    I remember going to Café 33 in Disneyland when I was about 14. My father was friends with the chef there. It was the first time I had caviar and quail eggs…ahhhh the introduction to the secret world of the speakeasy.

  • Pretty impressive list (especially Cafe 33 – so excited to try that out!), though failing to put San Diego’s Prohibition on the list really bummed me out. You need a secret password and everything!

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