The secret is out—running an intimate bar that serves craft cocktails and gives patrons a feeling of exclusivity is a hot trend these days. And calling it a speakeasy only adds to the allure.
Today’s speakeasies are loosely rooted in the secretive drinking spots that operated during Prohibition. Modern speakeasies take elements from the tradition that includes passwords and hidden entryways, but spin them in a hip new direction. Many in the industry generally acknowledge New York City’s PDT—which stands for “Please Don’t Tell”—as pioneering the 21st century trend when it opened in 2007. Patrons enter the stylish lounge through a vintage phone booth situated within a hot dog joint.
More recent arrivals on the speakeasy scene tap into PDT’s legacy, but differentiate with their design, menu or vibe. All make guests feel special by being somewhat secretive but accessible. But these aren’t all one-offs created by indie operators. Some have already expanded into multiple locations, while others maximize a large space by dividing it into separate profit centers, each providing that unique experience today’s consumers are seeking. Here are four modern speakeasies of note.
1. Back Bar, Minneapolis
Before opening Young Joni restaurant in 2016, being the chef-owner of a speakeasy wasn’t part of the plan, says Ann Kim. “It was a bigger space than we wanted, so we decided to create a separate concept in the back,” she says. That concept is Back Bar, a cozy lounge with plush seating and a craft cocktail selection that doesn’t group beverages in classic groups but rather has each stand on its own.
Guests enter through a separate door in the alley beside Young Joni; a red light in the entryway signals the bar is open. “Our intention was never to be secretive or exclusive, but to offer an element of surprise,” says Kim. “It’s connected to the restaurant, but provides a totally different experience.” That experiential element is one differentiator of modern speakeasies. At Back Bar, its vintage decor evokes a North Dakota cabin, and the music plays on a reel-to-reel tape player.
Photo credit: The Restaurant Project
2. 2nd Floor, New York City
If a speakeasy is defined by an obscure entrance in an unexpected place, 2nd Floor qualifies. Situated above the 2nd Ave. Deli’s Upper East Side location, the second-floor cocktail bar, entered through a side street, is designed to attract a younger crowd to the New York City icon. Instead of serving the pastrami sandwiches and stuffed cabbage that made the deli famous, the menu features snacks such as pastrami deviled eggs and brisket beef jerky. The extensive cocktail list includes on-trend ingredients such as orgeat, aperol and amaro mixed with boutique spirits. The goal: to create a separate operation that draws in different customers than the main restaurant.
3. Blind Barber, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago
Even more unexpected than a speakeasy above a deli is one behind a barber shop. Peering through the windows into its newest location in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, the Blind Barber looks like a hip shave and haircut spot. But in the back, a door leads into a 1970s-themed bar where guests can order up six signature cocktails, local beers and some wines by the glass. On the food side, there’s a menu listing 12 grilled cheese variations. Each of the three Blind Barber locations offers a slightly different drink selection and vibe.
4. Bootlegger Jack’s, Astoria, N.Y.
Bootlegger Jack’s Speakeasy is a contemporary throwback to the hidden bars of the Roaring ’20s. In fact, when Willie Degel opened this location of Uncle Jack’s Meat House last December, he built in the basement bar as a tribute to his mother and uncles who made bathtub gin during Prohibition, he says. The 50-seat speakeasy is accessible through the restaurant’s unisex bathroom (complete with a giant selfie mirror that snaps your photo with a tap). A steel vault-style door leads downstairs, where patrons are greeted by oversized couches, Tiffany-type lamps and faux peeling wallpaper that create the feeling of a secret hideaway. While the decor may be retro, the food and drinks are very 21st century, with items such as tuna poke cones and lobster rangoon accompanying craft cocktails.