Behind an unmarked red door on a busy NoLita street—easily passable to eyes not trained to the elusive ways of NYC bars—lies a secluded cocktail den inside a coyly hidden bar. Mulberry Project—a low-key, subterranean watering hole that resonates cool—opened a nostalgic, speakeasy-themed pop-up in its rear: Project 1919 (open through the end of April). Think: Prohibition-Era booze room.
A host will lead you through the bar and into the back. Where guests would normally find a backyard, they now find a little cantina, housed in a collapsible room (though you'd think it had been there at least 100 years by the looks of it). Jazz Age ditties fill the air (we're talkin' Fats Waller key bangin'—don't say you ain't misbehavin' Fats, we all know you are), severely low lighting (broken by the soft glow from shaded light fixtures on the walls and candles tableside), steel tables and wood everything-else. Black-and-white photos of men shielding their eyes (secrets, secrets) bookend the small yet charming bar at the far end of the room. While the space is filled with stylishly dressed, young-leaning, Downtown types, if you squint, you can easily imagine them to be rough-and-rowdy, early-20th-century riff-raff.
Like the atmosphere, the liquors served are exclusively dark. A whiskey-heavy drink menu is presented, with cocktails both classic and proprietary. They change it up behind the bar (and diggity do those mixologists know how to craft a mean ol' drank), but these were the winning sips during my late-evening visit:
Corn 'n' Oil (rum, Velvet Falernum, bitters): Goes down eaaaaasy-peasy. Sitting in the glass with barely visible swirls of the smokey and spiced syrup (Velvet Falernum), the drink evokes what the name suggests in color and texture—in a good way. Like a fancy version of backwater booze.
Sazerac (rye whiskey, sugar, Absinthe, bitters): A surprisingly well-balanced version of a tried-and-true classic. Prominent absinthe rinse (too often, frugal establishments skimp on this luxurious, and wondrous, wormwood concoction). Aromatic in a way that's better than Chanel No. 5.
Boulvadier (bourbon, Cocchi Rosso, Campari): BLISS. Campari marries the bourbon with harmony. The first sip carries an orange-twist explosion. The winner to my taste—but then again, I'm a sucker for Campari.
Frank Yale (cognac, Yellow Chartreuse, Earl Grey syrup, orange blossom): Syrupy with a root beer flavor that reminds me of adolescence. The Earl Grey has a pronounced voice in the sip symphony. Plus, the drink looks great, served in a high pony glass that showcases a glowing, light amber color.
The food—characterized by contemporary takes on classic dishes—deviated from the old-timey feel of the joint. But the dishes taste good enough to forgive the anachronism. Citrusy steak tacos (3 per order) are a safe and satisfying order. More adventurous munchers will swoon for divine bacon-wrapped dates with a peanut aioli. Sesame-sprinkled tuna tartare, scooped onto a wonton crisp, turned my seafood-averse dining companion into an advocate of raw fish. The decadent will go for mac 'n' cheese served in a skillet dish, with paprika and shallots on top—a mound of shell pasta covered in a blanket of cheese. A caloric song. Brussels sprouts drizzled in a cream sauce make for a nice, bitter finish.
I left wishing I had been around for the thrill and dangerous air of the Prohibition-Era scene. Then a craving for more cocktails kicked in and, ducking into another bar (operating legally, mind you), was glad that I missed those law-breaking days.
Keep your eyes open in this city—you never know what time warp you may stumble into.
>>Project 1919 at Mulberry Bar, 176 Mulberry St., btw Broome & Grand sts., 646.448.4536, open through the end of April