Pssst, there's a new hidden bar on the LES. No, no one knows where it is. Yeah, it was a taco stand or brothel or fallout shelter or something. To get in, you descend the stairs, cartwheel through the kitchen, dry hump the busboy and...zzzzzzzzzzz. Breaking news: the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. But we'd welcome a prohibition on New York's speakeasy revival.
The new wave of speakeasies kicked off with Sasha Petraske's Milk & Honey. The door was unmarked and the number unlisted. Only regulars who followed the house rules (No Fighting, No Star Fucking, Gentlemen Will Remove Their Hats) knew who to call to get in. But these gimmicks came second to the main attraction: bartenders (yes, time to put the word "mixologist" to rest too) who made a mean cocktail.
Milk & Honey was a hit. And the inevitable imitators ( The Back Room, Employees Only, La Esquina) jumped on the covert bandwAMEagon. In the last year or so, the speakeasy trend has gone into hyperdrive with SubMercer, Woodson & Ford, Raines Law Room, Cabin Down Below, Su Casa, the (now-shuttered) Cafe Select backroom and Uo to name a few.
Speakeasies thrive for obvious reasons. They are exclusive, but subtly so. At some point in the last five years, the brash elitism on display at places like Bungalow 8, Marquee and Cain went out of style. The wave of "it" destinations that followed ostensibly shunned the sort of excess (velvet ropes, beefy bouncers, membership cards, bottle service) that, especially post-Recession, dated those 27th Street hotspots. (There have been exceptions of course, like Matt Levine's LES litter box The Eldridge.)
Hidden bars, then, appear to be modest ventures. But they exist solely to flatter their patrons, convincing them that they've dodged the tasteless cliches lining the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea for a more refined, off-the-beaten-path alternative. In the end, they've merely replaced Marquee as the place to go to avoid the riff-raff. And there's nothing modest about that. There's also the self-flattery that comes with "being in the know" and leading friends or a date through some convoluted labyrinth of an entrance before being granted the privilege of paying $15 for a mediocre cocktail.
The biggest joke with modern speakeasies is that these days it's hard to not know about them. It's no coincidence that secret bars exploded in popularity at the same time Facebook and Twitter wrote Secret's 140-character obituary. (Speaking of stale trends, shouldn't we all be over Facebook and texting now that our mothers are hooked on them?) Today's twenty-somethings are used to the idea of all of their friends knowing exactly where they are at any given moment. Any illusion of mystery seems welcome. But that feeling of falling off the grid often results in someone tweeting about how happy they are to have fallen off the grid; people just can't resist.
Sure, the internet (including, we'll admit, sites like ours) is largely responsible for the silly contradictions of the new speakeasies. But speakeasies, in becoming so inescapable, also have themselves to blame.
Hidden Bars That Get A Pass:
Chumley's. 86 Bedford Street. For its history. (Currently closed for renovations)
Bill's Gay Nineties. 57 E. 54 Street. For its history and awesomely misleading name.
Milk & Honey. 134 Eldridge Street. For its innovation.
PDT. 113 St. Mark's Place. For its hot dogs.