| By Leonora Desar
During Prohibition, New Yorkers drank illegally behind the unmarked doors of underground speakeasies, which over time became more visible due to an easily bribed police force. Now, 79 years later, speakeasies have made a comeback in New York City. Beginning with Sasha Petraske’s Milk and Honey, these hotspots became the rage—especially Downtown—by offering glamor and clandestine mystique as an alternative to overcrowded sports bars. The cocktails and décor may have changed since the Prohibition era but an age-old rule still applies—the more exclusive something seems, the more people want in.
Tonight, we’re giving you the secret password and inviting you to follow us down velvet-dark side streets to Downtown’s best hideaways. From East Village lounges to Lower East Side lairs, here’s your sneak peek at what goes on behind our favorite hidden doors.
1. The Back Room: Best Cure for a Monday
It’s pin-drop quiet on Norfolk Street as you pace back and forth, searching for The Back Room’s tell-tale toy store façade. A low metal gate marked Lower East Side Toy Co. signals that you’re in the right place; you push it aside to descend into an alleyway suffused in a hazy, champagne yellow. Behind an unmarked door a bouncer waits to ask the password. Proletariat, you mouth, slipping into the crimson darkness within. Inside, Victorian settees in brothel red line the mezzanine floor, where locals sip Prohibition-styled cocktails out of ceramic teacups. On the walls, pale-limbed lovelies framed in ornate gold pose impishly above a live jazz quartet that’s just begun to play. Then perhaps, if you’re a VIP or press, the bartender pushes open the bookcase to a strictly guarded back room within a back room, a secret room where certain celebrities may or may not also be unwinding. Taking in the floor-to-ceiling mirror and an enormous cushion in Arabian Nights azure, you find yourself feeling like a superstar as well…at least until it’s time to go home.
102 Norfolk St. (betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.); 212-228-5098; see The Back Room’s Facebook page for Monday night’s “Lucky’s Lounge” password, which is updated on a weekly basis; Sunday-Wednesday: 7:30 p.m.-around 2:30 a.m.; Thursday: 7:30 p.m.-3 a.m.; Friday-Saturday 7:30 p.m.-4 a.m. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org. No fur allowed.
Prices: cocktails: $10-$14; beer: $7; wine: $8.
2. 2nd Floor on Clinton: Best WAY to Impress Your Significant Other
“Why can’t we just stay in tonight?” complains your date as you enter Lower East Side bar Barramundi with a crush of sports fans. With a knowing smile, you lead the way into the lounge’s recesses and to a door marked “Private,” where, to your date’s disbelief, you press the nearby buzzer. Soon enough the entrance opens, revealing a comely hostess who beckons you to follow her up a wooden staircase washed in ivory candlelight and into an elegant parlor. Discordant gypsy violins hum softly as you recline in the burgundy window seat to sample port and absinthe-flavored chocolates. “This is a haven,” your date exclaims, and you can’t help but agree, realizing that you’ve just discovered the perfect way to go out while remaining right at home.
67 Clinton St. (enter through Barramundi); 212-529-6900, www.2ndflooronclinton.com; Thursday, Friday & Saturday: 7 p.m.-2 a.m. (last entry at 1 a.m.). Inquire in person about their private online reservation system.
Prices: cocktails: $14-$16; beer: $10; wine (by the glass): $14; wine (bottle): $42-$95; liquor: $12-35; chocolates, assortment of three: $9.
3. Apotheke: Best WAY to Feel Like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz
You’re about to give up the hunt for Chinatown’s Doyers Street but suddenly there it is, coiling off the Bowery like a scrap of serpentine lore snatched from some urban fairytale. There, concealed beneath the faint aura of spices and a sign marked “Chemist,” you uncover the entrance to Apotheke.
I guess I’m not in Manhattan anymore, you muse, clasping the lion-etched brass handle and opening the door. Inside, high-backed fainting couches dazzle in sea green and burgundy, illuminated by the garnet- and sky-colored lamps dangling above. Behind the marble bar, tinctures and potions beckon like liquid gems—come closer. You take the bait, ordering a creamy coconut blend that soon turns into two before you finally slip back out into the clove-soaked evening, already plotting your return.
9 Doyers St. (betw. Bowery & Pell Sts.); 212-406-0400, apothekenyc.com; Monday-Saturday: 6:30 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday: 8 p.m.-2 a.m. For reservations, email email@example.com.
Prices: cocktails: $15-$18; wine: $13; champagne & sparkling wine: $18-$415;
4. Sake Bar Decibel: Best Man Cave Since Fred Flintstone’s
Searching for a speakeasy where kitsch is king? Look no further than Decibel, a Japanese sake den buried beneath trendy East 9th Street. After spotting the blinking red “On Air” sign and sleet-gray awning, descend the staircase below street level and enter Decibel’s dimly lit cavern. In the front room, graffiti-coated walls and a disco ball set the stage as you wait to be seated, which, before 7 p.m. on a weekday, shouldn’t take very long at all. In the secluded back room beyond, red lanterns cast a warm glow over vintage sake labels and Transformers action figures frozen in fighting postures behind the bar. The plain, translucent elixir that soon arrives at your table is also more than meets the eye—if you’re not already a sake lover, consider yourself converted.
240 E. 9th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.); 212-979-2733, sakebardecibel.com; Monday-Saturday: 6 p.m.-2:50 a.m.; Sunday: 6 p.m.-12:50 a.m. No Reservations, walk-ins only.
Prices: sake (5 oz.) $8-$33; sake (bottle) $18-$187; beer: $5-$6; plum wine: $8; Japanese spirits: $5-$20; food: $1-$11.
5. Please Don’t Tell (PDT): Best Reason to Hit Redial
Saturday night; the roar of St. Mark’s Place. Inching past a cluster of frat boy types you enter Crif Dogs, a hot dog dive concealing a 1930s phone booth that also serves as PDT’s elusive entrance. You pick up the phone, follow the instructions. I hope they answer, you think to yourself, recalling all the times you couldn’t get through before finally landing tonight’s reservation. One minute that feels more like 10 elapses and then…the door on the other side of the booth slips open. As the hostess ushers you to your seat passed a stuffed black bear sporting fangs and a hat you notice something even odder, considering the neighborhood you’re in—tranquility. Yes, somehow you’ve found a hip East Village hotspot where you don’t have to fight for a seat or the bartender’s attentive service, even if you did have to fight to get in.
113 St. Mark’s Pl. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A; enter through Crif Dogs), 212-614-0386, pdtnyc.com; Sunday-Thursday: 6 p.m.-1:30 a.m., Friday-Saturday: 6 p.m.-3 a.m. Table reservations are made same day only beginning at 3 p.m. ; bar seats are first-come, first-served.
Prices: cocktails: $15; beer: $7; wine: $12-$16; food (from the Crif Dogs menu): $5-$8.
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