Bootleggers, gangsters, whispered passwords — long gone are the days when acquiring a glass of poorly-distilled whiskey was a clandestine affair, but modern “speakeasies” are still luring crowds with their playful nostalgia.
“People still want to feel in-the-know,” said Jamie McDonald, Emmy-award winning director and author of “No Access New York City.” McDonald says that speakeasies are one of the few places where New Yorkers can go for the sensation of exclusivity.
“One of the nice things about New York City is that anyone can go to a nice restaurant,” said McDonald. “Exclusivity has fallen a little out of fashion. There’s almost a bigotry to it.”
Megan Bones, event coordinator at The Back Room, a speakeasy in the Lower East Side, agrees: “People always want to go where they’re not allowed to go.”
This December marks the 84th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition, the 13-year nationwide ban on alcohol that lasted from 1920-1933. In 2017, the secret vibe still thrives at local places that cast themselves as speakeasies, where you can go for a taste of more artful and illegitimate times.
The Back Room
Unlike many of New York’s speakeasies, which are only homages to the era of illicit drinking and underground jazz clubs, The Back Room’s origin dates all the way back to prohibition. Back then, it was formally known as Ratner’s, a Jewish kosher deli frequented by gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky who referred to it as “The Back of Ratner’s.”
Tucked above a courtyard off of Norfolk Street, a cold metal gate that reads “Lower East Side Toy Company” in broken black paint guards The Back Room’s secret identity.
Open the gate to a narrow set of stairs that will bring you down—in true Gatsby fashion—past a flickering green neon light and into a dark clearing surrounded by apartment complexes. Keep walking forward, and a second set of stairs leads up to the bar. But be careful: during fall and winter, the staircase is sometimes closed off by a black door to keep the cold out. Miss it, and you may walk up the wrong staircase and find yourself knocking on someone’s apartment door.
Inside, a candle-lit, cash-only bar serves bottles and cans of beer in paper bags- bodega-style- and liquor in tea cups. Mirrors reflect the dim tungsten glow of chandeliers hanging from the tin ceiling tiles.
“You should be here some Monday nights; you can’t move,” said Katie Auth, a flute performance student at New York University and swing dancer. Katie is wearing a mid-calf-length checkered dress and white Keds. Her lipstick matches the red flower she used to pin her hair to the side.
Mondays are popular at The Back Room with dancers and other regulars because of the live music from Svetlana and the Delancey Five, a swing band playing Benny Goodman tunes and other standards from the 1920s-1940s.
“I think dancers love it for the authentic experience,” said Auth.
Walking on 9th Avenue, you pass by Stone Street Coffee, just another barista shop resembling the thousands spread all across New York. But this one is deceptive. Placed right next to a Chinese restaurant, you need to keep your eyes peeled for the faded letters that mark the ‘coffee shop.’ Once you walk in, you’re greeted by a bouncer. Unusual for a coffee shop.
That bouncer is the key to a modern-day speakeasy. This one is called Bathtub Gin.
Josh Acevedo, 29, is the bouncer du’jour for the night. He’s dressed in black from head to toe, barely smiles and speaks very little. It’s easy to miss this bar that’s been slinging cocktails since 2011. Once you step inside the coffee shop facade and show your ID, you’re led into a dimly-lit bar filled with people ordering signature cocktails set to the backdrop of Miles Davis.
“The bartenders are one of the biggest reasons why people come back,” said Acevedo. The menu goes through many seasonal changes with bartenders adding new signature cocktails and fun flares on classic drinks.
The main attraction at the bar is the live jazz show on Monday and the Burlesque show on Tuesdays. Even though The Bathtub Gin is one of the most well-known speakeasies in the city- frequented by celebrities and the New York elite- the exclusivity has somehow stayed alive over the years. By the way, you might have to shimmy your way around the large bathtubs placed in the middle of the room.