#TravelTuesday: Top speakeasy bars in New York
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New York in the 1920s. Josephine Baker had yet to decamp to Paris, Duke Ellington was electrifying musical audiences, and Al Capone still ran the streets. Of course, all this was happening without any hooch since Prohibition was firmly in force. Enter the speakeasy, hidden dens where booze flowed, music played and flappers danced. While most speakeasies closed with the end of Prohibition in 1933, their legacy lives on in the form of several relics from the era — like the notorious 21 Club — and a plethora of speakeasy-style cocktail bars. Here are five of the city's best.
The Back Room
It doesn't get more authentic than The Back Room. In fact, you might even recognise this real-life relic that has featured in of-the-era shows like Boardwalk Empire. Locate the toy storefront, present the password to the bouncer, brave the dark alley, and you'll be rewarded with a tiny, dimly-lit space straight from the 1920s. Vintage furniture, antique décor, grouped seating and a roaring fireplace create a real throwback vibe, and if you're lucky, you'll get in with the manager and find your way into the real back room, a secret space concealed by a bookshelf. Prohibition may be long gone, but suave bartenders dish up delicious tipples in teacups — like they did back then — so should the cops drop in, you can pretend your oh-so-drinkable Bee's Knees or Murder Inc cocktail is but an innocuous cuppa. Pop by on Monday nights to enjoy the live jazz band that sees patrons take to the dance floor with slick moves.
102 Norfolk Street
Set in a residential-style building near Union Square, Dear Irving is a brilliantly conceived speakeasy-style den with charm, class and character to spare. Supposedly inspired by Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, the stylish bar boasts serious attention to detail in everything from its décor and menus to drinks and bites. Claim a seat in one of four sections: a '60s-style den Don Draper might have inhabited; the Great Gatsby-esque bead-enclosed booths; the wood-heavy bar area; or the decadent salon Marie Antoinette would've had tea in. When you're settled, peruse the menus — creatively presented like a hotel stationery pack — then press a buzzer to discretely signal to staff that you're ready to order. The Whiskey Business is a pulls-no-punches elixir of rye, ancho chile liqueur, cinnamon and lemon, while the Rob Rose perfectly combines Scotch, amaro cid ciaro and rosewater.
55 Irving Place
On a good night you'll only wait an hour to get into Employees Only, a railway-inspired speakeasy. Though tiny, the bar blends Deco touches with industrial sensibilities that recall the golden age of train travel, while the dapper bar staff are nods to another era with white jackets, sharply parted hair and handlebar moustaches. This is a real insider's bar. Many patrons are bartenders themselves, enjoying a night off with like-minded company, and well-known bartenders have barbacked here just to be part of the fun. The long list of soothing swills include classics like the Pisco Sour and Manhattan, and signatures like the heady Almost There, while the dining room offers substantial, moreish meals. Later, as the lights come up to signal closing time, bowls of chicken noodle soup appear from the kitchen to help revelers combat their hangovers.
510 Hudson Street
Tucked down a side street in Chinatown — prosaically referred to as "Murder Alley" thanks to its violent history — you'll wonder if you're in the right place while looking for Apotheke, an apothecary-themed speakeasy hidden behind a 200-year-old door with a sliding peephole. Inside are furnishings filched from a now-defunct Daniel Boulud eatery, light sconces filled with an absinthe-like liquid, and an ornate gold leaf ceiling, while behind the bar are shelves of spirits that really nail the old-world pharmacy vibe. Not content to let the theme rest with the décor, Apotheke's cocktail menu boasts over 250 'prescriptions' across categories like "Health and Beauty," "Pain Killers," "Stimulants," and 'Euphoric Enhancers'. Settle in for a few medicinal tots — try the Red Licorice or the Opium Uplifter — and if you're feeling brave, sample the House Absinthe, said to be made with fermented sugarcane juice according to a 200-year-old recipe.
9 Doyers Street
Hidden entries are a speakeasy hallmark, and they don't come more hidden than the entrance to The Garret. To get to this West Village hotspot, make for the Bleecker Street Five Guys, and look for the back stairs to libation heaven. Grab a couch in the artsy loft space decked out with two massive skylights, hourglasses and a wall-mounted rhino head, and prepare to pick your poison. The menu might only have twelve drinks, but here, quality definitely trumps quantity. The LTT Continental is a quaffable gin-and-grapefruit concoction, while the dainty-looking Rosarita Stick Up is a boozy mix of tequila, Grand Marnier, rosemary-thyme syrup and egg white. When hunger strikes, Five Guys downstairs will happily whip up off-menu specials you won't find anywhere else. No, really. Try the Italian Neighbors (prosciutto, Pagani's housemade marinara), the Sixth Man (sriracha, five spice, mustard seed), or the Garret (steak marinade dust, Luger sauce).
296 Bleecker Street
About Gayatri Bhaumik
Always ready for her next adventure, Gayatri took her first flight at 10 days old and hasn't looked back since. After 12 years in Bangkok and seven in Melbourne, she's now based in Hong Kong when she isn't globetrotting. Besides serving as the Travel Columnist for Liv Magazine, she contributes travel and lifestyle stories to a range of publications, including Jetsetter, The Art of Business Travel, and The Loop. Most recently, she was the Deputy Editor at Hong Kong's Artemis Communications, working on titles such as Elite Traveler Asia, Explorer Magazine and Necessity.com. Follow her travels on her blog and Instagram.
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