Like all of us, this great city’s nightlife circuit holds secrets. Mysterious, alluring and intoxicating ones. They are tucked away off the beaten path in dark alleys, hidden behind unmarked doors and shielded by thick curtains. New York’s hideaway bars are frequented by those special few who are in the know. You can be among them, if you so desire—you just have to be able to keep a secret. So, welcome to the cocktail underground. We hope you came thirsty.
Before we begin, a quick history lesson. The Prohibition Era (1920–1933) made the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors” illegal nationwide, but not even the passage of the 18th Amendment could stop New Yorkers from getting their booze on. Bars went into hiding—and the cocktail underground was born. This “dry” period left a lasting mark on New York, and birthed the nightlife scene as we now know it.
It seems appropriate, then, to start with a house of gin, considering it was the spirit of choice during Prohibition. Then, even the most toxic, cheap grain alcohol could be made palatable when mixed with juniper berries (the dominant source of gin’s botanical flavor). Bathtub Gin (132 Ninth Ave., 646.559.1671) pays homage to this past in more ways than one. To the uninformed passerby, the address belongs to Stone Street Coffee Company, a quaint, rustic java stop. Just inside and through an unassuming door, however, a throwback parlor presents itself—pressed tin ceilings, upholstered wingback armchairs, hardwood floors and Baroque wallpaper. There, the “stuff” is shaken and stirred, with Nolet’s Reserve Dry Gin allocated as the “ultimate” for sipping. And just as you’d hope there would be, a large copper bathtub—yes, like the ones of folklore used to brew moonshine in—sits in the middle of the room (and several more make cameos as bathroom sinks). Guests are free to plop down inside and put their feet up, as long as they’re sober enough to pull themselves out again.
The Back Room
Speakeasy-style bars emulate the past, while others are part of it. A space that was a true speakeasy in the past century is again fulfilling its intoxicating purpose. True to form, it hides in plain sight. The Lower East Side Toy Company, in what appears to be a dilapidated storage house, isn’t what it seems. Open a metal gate, walk down an ominous alleyway (pictured on p. 27) and enter The Back Room (102 Norfolk St., 212.228.5098). The style and sophistication of the interior are in contrast to the run-down, seedy feeling of the venue’s exterior (a dram joint couldn’t operate as a real speakeasy unless it had the true capacity to deceive). Amid velvet-lined walls and opulent couches, cocktails are served, as a discreet establishment would, in teacups, while beer comes in paper bags. Still more secrets: Behind a seemingly standard bookcase lies, true to the name, a back room. It’s invite-only, so keep an eye out for an insider to cozy up to.
Raines Law Room
Raines Law Room (48 W. 17th St., no phone) defiantly takes its name from an 1896 law passed by the New York State Legislature that imposed a liquor tax and prohibited the sale of booze on Sundays (save for hotels)—one small step in the march toward full prohibition. Ring the wall-mounted buzzer for entry and take in the anachronistic, if a bit over-the-top, scene: Silhouettes of Jazz Age archetypes (the flapper, the showgirl and the smoking gent) dot one wall in celebratory poses as guests do their best to imitate under shimmering tin ceilings. Plush armchairs make for comfy places to plop alongside exposed brick walls and vintage photos in circular frames. Velvet couches are enveloped in gauze fabric. A homey, prep kitchen in the back is where the mixologists work on pre-Prohibition staples, including perfect Negronis and Manhattans.
A gritty, triangular-shaped brick building, capping an irregular intersection in the West Village, is home to one of the area’s best under-the-radar spots. Little Branch (20 Seventh Ave. So., 212.929.4360) delivers big. You’ll spot a bouncer, donning 1920s street garb, sitting on a stool in front of the unmarked door. If you approach him well-dressed and with intent, he’ll wink and open up. You descend into a dimly lit canteen, austerely decorated, save a few tastefully distressed touches, and with a small, standing, corner bar and compact wooden booths to the side. Bartenders, in newsboy caps and period trousers, chip ice right off the block for whiskey on the rocks and take their sweet time with cocktail orders. Feel comfortable going with the bartender’s choice, or pick from a solid selection of classics (Casino, for example: gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon and orange bitters, shaken and served straight up). They’re worth the wait. Get there right as it opens at 7 p.m., especially when there’s live jazz (Sun-Thurs). The small space draws crowds.
67 Orange Street
Don’t be dissuaded by the heavy, purple velvet curtains that are perpetually closed in the storefront windows at 67 Orange Street (2082 Frederick Douglass Blvd., 212.662.2030). Contrary to appearances (which are carefully curated), the bar is far from shuttered. Rather, the Harlem hideaway is bursting with life, and life-giving drinks. The joint—named after the last historic (and seedy, considering it lay in the notoriously crime-ridden, 19th-century Five Points district) address of Almack’s Dance Hall, one of the first African-American-owned bars in the city—doesn’t shy away from any kind of booze, and devotes stand-alone menus to each of the major players: gin, whiskey, tequila, rum, vodka and punch, as well as champagne, pisco, cognac and beer. Antiquated light bulbs, filaments exposed, cast a dim light that reflects off antique mirrors in the sultry space. Craft cocktails, mixed behind the bar, range from the Color Purple, a proprietary cocktail by actor and mixologist Garrett Lee Hendricks, (London gin, lavender bitters, blackberries, St. Germain, lemon juice and simple syrup) to Manhattan After Dark (cigar-smoke-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon, port, bitters, Domaine de Canton ginger and Benedictine). If you find yourself getting hungry, go for the fried chicken sliders. You won’t be disappointed.
Not all underground bars recreate the aesthetics of a speakeasy of yore. Often enough, it’s not about the look, it’s about modern takes on the mystique.
An inconspicuous steel door marked with a simple “AB” lives on an unassuming Lower East Side street. Knock. Then, wait. Knock again—not too aggressively, now—and step inside. There’s no written menu at Attaboy (134 Eldridge St., no phone). In all honesty, you don’t even need one. The two suspender-clad bartenders have skills that can’t be contained by recipes. Instead, they’ll prompt you to define your tastes, ask for a liquor of your preference and, with a nod, employ their wet sorcery. What ends up in your glass—be it a traditional Old Fashioned or a remix of a classic Gin Fizz—is a product of their whim and imagination. Conversation bubbles over the soft, soulful soundtrack. No reservations are taken, so it’s best to arrive early (before 9 p.m.). If you manage to land a seat at the brushed-steel bar or in a booth after that, you’ll indeed be deserving of a heartfelt “attaboy.”
In the unlikeliest city in the world, you can count on unlikely pairings. The East Village Crif Dogs (113 St. Marks Pl., 212.614.2728), a trendy hot dog house, has a vibe that reads “sauerkraut” more than it does “Sazerac,” but don't be dismayed: Find the old-time, wood-paneled phone booth inside and behold a portal to a lush’s paradise that goes by the name of PDT (212.614.0386), short for “please don’t tell” (and you better not). Make sure you call beforehand, as only same-day reservations are accepted (ring as soon as the lines open at 3 p.m.; they can be full almost immediately). Enter the booth, pick up the receiver and ring the buzzer (just once, as any cool cat knows); once you’ve announced yourself, a wall opens up into the high-quality cocktail den. Think: a sleek wood-paneled bar, exotic taxidermy and clubhouse booths. The Staggerac (just like a classic Sazerac, but with extra-strong bourbon) is a crowd-pleaser. And if all this isn’t enough, you can get the tasty hot dogs delivered right to you. Pass the mustard and propose a toast, but whatever you do … don’t tell. Please.
While most in Little Italy are scoping out cannoli and spicy meatballs, savvy drinkers scan Mulberry Street for a sign-less red door under a green light set back from the sidewalk. It opens into a waiting room with stainless steel walls and a sneaky one-way mirror. Knock on the interior portal, and you’ll be let into Mulberry Project (149 Mulberry St., 646.448.4536), a modern space with a long bar lined with red stools and with pleated black leather banquettes on the opposite wall. Industrial-style lights hang overhead. An outdoor space in the back is often transformed into offshoot pop-up bars with their own menus, decor and identities. Come expecting to be pleasantly surprised.
It’s easy to walk past Pouring Ribbons (225 Ave. B, 2nd fl., 917.656.6788). The upstairs bar doesn’t do much to announce itself. Nor does it rely on any flashy decor gimmicks: The cocktails are so good, the place doesn’t need to. Reservations aren’t required, but the doormen like to trickle the flow of tipplers (if you already have a friend there, you can get in fast). A diverse house menu covers serious ground (a strong standout is the Debaser: gin, sherry, Licor 43, dry curaçao, orange bitters), and grades each concoction’s characteristics, from refreshing to spirituous, comforting to adventurous. The selection of Chartreuse, that yellowish-green French liqueur invented by Carthusian monks, is unrivaled in the area. Chat up the friendly bartenders. They possess encyclopedic knowledge on ingredients and drink histories.
The Lower East Side’s Open House (244 E. Houston St., 917.225.9018) is marked by a neon sign (and the young crowds that huddle out front smoking cigarettes on weekends). The narrow space, with two bars, delivers a standard dance-bar experience. Things turn up after 2 am. Down a flight of stairs, where the everyday patron would see nothing more than restroom entrances, the insider sees an opportunity: A “secret” door hides here. Sometimes it looks like a stack of beer cases, other times it looks like a Red Bull-dispensing machine. Give it a good, firm push, and you’ll discover a soundproof dance chamber, with DJ booth and laser lights. The party here doesn’t stop until, well … the party stops. Sweaty bodies bump together until after dawn, and when it’s time to wind down, exhausted revelers are ushered out via a side entrance into the lobby of a neighboring tenement and into the light of day.
The list of insider watering holes goes on, and proprietors are getting increasingly creative as they try to dazzle and mystify patrons with hidden haunts. The Garret (296 Bleecker St., 2nd fl., 212.675.6157), a casual yet refined upstairs lounge, has an entrance paradoxically placed in the back of a West Village Five Guys burger joint and serves expert cocktails. The Capote & Friends—bison-grass-infused vodka, St. Germain, strawberry, cucumber, lime—is a light and frothy delight. Mainstay Beauty & Essex (146 Essex St., 212.614.0146) masquerades during the day as a vintage pawnshop, revealing a luxe, modern bar and restaurant behind a hidden portal by night. La Esquina (114 Kenmare St., 646.613.7100), which to the naked eye looks like a ramshackle taco spot, has a secret brasserie and bar underneath with superb sips and a star-studded clientele. East Williamsburg’s Featherweight (135 Graham Ave., Brooklyn, 347.763.0873), with nothing to mark its doors but a street-art boxer and punching bag, brings elevated mixology to an edgy area. Fig. 19 (131 Chrystie St., no phone) is only accessible via a hidden door in a Lower East Side art gallery. Not even barber shops are sacred: Blind Barber (339 E. 10th St., 212.228.2123) gives haircuts when the sun is up, and transforms into a back-room cocktail lounge once darkness falls. In short, hidden and secret are in on the New York scene.
Prohibition is long gone. Yet the underground scene is here to stay. You’ve now been inducted, and that’s worth drinking to.