Speakeasies Get Their Second Wind


Photograph of a speakeasy in 1933 by Margaret Bourke-White from LIFE photo archive host by Google

While the "speakeasy" trend in new bars has been going on for so long in New York that some establishments are sliding into "speak-cheesy" territory, it's still a relative novelty in most of the country. In today's New York Times, William Grimes takes a broad view of today's speakeasy-style bars, and what they have—and don't have—in common with the 1920s originals.

Speakeasies had their heyday during Prohibition, when their hush-hush approach to selling alcohol had more to do with avoiding prison than with any kind of urban trend. As Grimes notes, these bars ran the gamut from small rooms with a table, a chair and a bottle of suspicious and sometimes downright poisonous booze, to illicit watering holes of legend such as the 21 Club in Manhattan.

More recently, craft-cocktail bars such as Milk & Honey in New York and Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco have embraced certain characteristics of these vintage illegal establishments. While now operating above-board with liquor licenses and gins that have never been near a bathtub, these bars often have either no or minimal signage, or deceptive, wink-wink clues to mark their location (Bourbon & Branch's outside sign reads "Anti-Saloon League"); hidden entrances, such as the phone booth inside Crif Dogs that leads to the interior of PDT in Manhattan; and a décor and atmosphere that hark back to the creak and hush of 1920s-era illegal establishments.

Some aspects of the speakeasy-style bars lean toward a cloying preciousness, but many deserve credit for helping to revitalize craft mixology: In these small rooms that may only seat 20 people, necessitating reservations and unpublished phone numbers, bartenders can take their time to mix superb drinks—something that can be virtually impossible in the busy crush of a standard establishment. And while it can seem silly and pretentious to have to whisper a password into an intercom to obtain entry, the atmosphere in these bars, even on a busy weekend night, is far removed from the elbow-to-ear crowds and oppressive din found in many other bars at that same time.

Speakeasy-style establishments are old hat in New York, but cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, and Cleveland are trying out their own semi-secret establishments. What's your take on these kinds of places? For every person who's annoyed by having been turned away at the door or who's dismissive of the entire concept, there are folks who've had a fantastic time inside—let's hear all sides of the story.

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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