Are the Speakeasy Bars Getting Old?

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

"Secret passwords and exclusive policies be damned."


[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

In yesterday's Diner's Journal, Pete Wells writes that Pegu Club co-owner and bartender extraordinaire Audrey Saunders is opening a new place, the Tar Pit, with chef Mark Peel in Los Angeles next month.

With this move, Saunders—one of the most talented and influential bartenders in the ongoing cocktail renaissance—becomes the latest New York bartender to spread the craft west of Weehawken. Sasha Petraske, whose New York bars Milk & Honey and Little Branch (among others) helped spur the trend of the now ubiquitous speakeasy-style cocktail bars, played a hand in opening The Varnish in Los Angeles earlier this year, as well as taking his skills to the nation's capitol, working as a consultant on the Rooftop Bar at the W Hotel.

Toby Maloney, who came up through the bartending ranks at Pegu Club and Milk & Honey, took his talents on the road several years ago, opening The Violet Hour in Chicago and, more recently, consulting on The Patterson House in Nashville and Bradstreet Craftshouse in Minneapolis.

But what's even more interesting is the approach Saunders is taking with the Tar Pit. Wells writes that she rejected the idea of opening yet another pre-Prohibition themed bar, describing that concept as being played out. Instead, the approach will be that of a 1940s-era supper club, with an emphasis on vintage Hollywood style. "'We need to get back to a point where things are fun again,' she said of the cocktail culture. 'We kind of got really heavy.'"

It's only been a few months since William Grimes wrote of the popularity of speakeasy-style bars in the New York Times, but if the mixed reactions bars such as the Prohibition-themed Tavern Law in Seattle has received in local media are any indication, the intensely serious style of craft cocktail bars may be on the wane.

Instead, as Saunders indicated and as cocktail historian David Wondrich suggested in his review of Brooklyn's Clover Club in a recent issue of Esquire, the emphasis is swinging back to a very simple concept: fun places that serve good drinks—secret passwords and exclusive policies be damned.

While enjoying an immaculately prepared cocktail used to require a visit to an exclusive bar, increasingly quality drinks are popping up at neighborhood bars and upscale restaurants—a good indication of how the craft of quality mixology is spreading.

I still love visiting places like Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, but it's also refreshing to order a drink at a place like Feedback Lounge in Seattle, where the pool tables and rock and roll vibe are countered by quality craft cocktails being served at the bar.

Have you noticed this gradual spread of quality mixology out of the exclusive joints and into your neighborhood bars and restaurants? Lets hear about a few of your favorites.