6 months ago
It’s ten thirty on a Tuesday. Chris and I are standing in front of a tailor shop in Lower Manhattan. We’re on a side street just south of Delancey. In the distance you can hear the cars impatiently honking their horns as they line up to cross the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s noisy, it’s cold, and it’s starting to rain.
“I don’t think this is the place,” says Chris. “You said there’d be a guy. How are we supposed to get in if there isn’t a guy?”
“Hold on,” I tell him. I walk up to the shop confidently, pretending to know what I’m doing. I knock on the door but it’s thick with metal. It doesn’t make much of a sound. I hit the door again. Bang. Bang. Bang. Still nothing. Was there supposed to be a phone number? A password? Maybe I got the address wrong.
“This is a tailor’s. Or, what does the sign say? A dry cleaner? It looks like we’re trying to break into a dry cleaner’s on a Tuesday night.”
“Give it a second. This is all part of it.”
Chris is one of my best friends. It’s been months since we’ve seen each other. Last year he moved away to attend a prestigious grad program. The program takes up most of his time, almost all of his energy. His trips back to the city are rare – it’s a three-hour schlep on the Metro-North – and I wanted to make the most of our evening. Tonight was supposed to be an event. I paw at the door again and feel like an asshole.
“We tried, man. It’s cool. Let’s just go.”
We’re halfway up the street when the tailor shop opens. There is a man dressed in a faded Hawaiian shirt. He’s got three days stubble. A close-cropped haircut. The man gives us the once over then he smiles and waves us inside. The place is small but packed. Dim lighting. Candles. Bottles everywhere and a couple of booths towards the back. We take the last two seats at the rail.
The bartender tells us there is no menu. Instead, he asks what we want as a general vibe for our drinks. What we’re looking for – you know – tonally. I ask for something boozy with citrus. Chris wants something lighter. Maybe gin. The bartender nods and a couple of minutes later he appears with two large cocktails. I take a swig. It tastes of woodsmoke and oranges and hope. Delicious. Chris takes a sip. He makes a little sound like he’s about to cry.
“This place is f-cking awesome,” he says.
The tailor shop is called Attaboy. It’s among the dozens of neo-speakeasies that have populated the New York bar scene over the last two decades. These “secret” locations are some of the most popular establishments in the city. Bars like Please Don’t Tell, a cocktail lounge entered through a phone booth, are nearly impossible to book in advance and boast long wait times for walk-ups. The – sadly closed – Milk & Honey took things a step further, creating a members-only location along with a no-nonsense set of house rules. While the speakeasies have half hidden entrances, many with gimmicks like the toy factory front of The Backroom or the Tarot shop exterior of Employees Only, they’re not hard to find if you know what you’re looking for. Countless listicles and reviews online have also propped up the bars as tourist destinations. The speakeasy gimmick is very popular, begging the question: how clandestine can an operation really be if every night has a two-hour waitlist?
“When I found out about the speakeasies it made me reconsider the city,” says Matt Erf. Erf is an aficionado of the New York bar scene. He introduced me to Attaboy. “Entering a pub through a fake washing machine or pulling back a bookshelf to find a backroom…it feels like magic. Sure, you can find out about these things on the internet, but you’d have to know to look them up. Or you’d have to know somebody who has been. That creates a really fun vibe. It moves the bar beyond just being a bar. I know that sounds like hipster nonsense, but the better speakeasies are experiential. At the best locations, the owners put a lot of thought into it, from the entrance to the alcohol.”
Using Attaboy as a benchmark I can see Erf’s point. During my visit with Chris the service was impeccable. From start to finish we were extremely well attended to. The drinks we were given were carefully prepared to our specific tastes and while the prices were expensive (ish) you very much got what you paid for. I dug the atmosphere. It was great to feel like part of an exclusive club. Other friends have been less than enthused about the speakeasy concept.
“Every f-cking first date I’ve been on in the last two f-cking years has been at one of these stupid places,” said comedian Jill Colt. “Some idiot looks up a f-cking bar on Timeout and he acts like he’s introducing you into the upper echelons of society. You know a password? You’d pay twenty-two dollars for a sh*tty mixed drink? So what?”
I can see Jill’s point too. I love a good speakeasy but have also been denied by a bouncer in front of a pawn shop and waited forty-five minutes to drink a sickly sugary cocktail of “bathtub” gin.
To help you make the most of your speakeasy experience I’ve listed my five favorites, where they are, and how to get into them below.
Angel’s Share is entered through an unmarked door in Japanese Restaurant Village Yokocho Sidenote: The restaurant is worth a visit. Try the scallops with bacon. While getting a seat can be difficult – the location is small and predates most of the city’s neo speakeasies by decades – once you’re in the bar is immaculate. Angel’s Share is lit mostly by candles and a heavenly mural is painted overtop the rails. The room’s soft lighting gives a romantic vibe, but to make things feel a little magical I’d suggest ordering the Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a bourbon/cinnamon concoction that comes complete with smoking cloves.
Location: 8 Stuyvesant St.
4. The Backroom
To enter The Back Room you open a gate marked Lower East Side Toy Company, head down a flight of stairs, wander through a dark alleyway, then try your luck with the bouncer. Inside the decor is from another time period. The two-floor establishment has massive ceilings, old-timey furniture, and a giant chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Cocktails at the bar can be hit or miss, but the beer is (relatively) cheap, and the ambiance more than makes up for it. If you’re feeling adventurous push at the far left bookshelf and see where it takes you.
Location: 102 Norfolk St.
3. Dinner Table
This hidden restaurant is located inside of East Village watering hole, The Garret. If you head to the back of the bar, just past the bathrooms, there is an unmarked door with a small buzzer. Click it then wait to be taken in. Reservations are accepted, but the majority of the (extremely small) dining room is reserved for walk-in clientele. While speakeasies can feel overcrowded, Dinner Table gives you the chance to actually hear the company you came with and allows the charming staff to share their knowledge. Plates are small and great for sharing. I’d start with the popcorn ribs and octopus poke then go from there.
Location: 206 Ave. A
Apotheke is located down a Chinatown sidestreet. Look for the bottle above the door and check Instagram for the password. While initially, I was skeptical of the bar’s loose chemistry gimmick, the showmanship of the staff – there was a lot of fire used on my last visit – and the gigantic cocktail list won me over pretty quickly. Apotheke is also home to a variety of shows throughout the week: burlesque and jazz add to the mood of the establishment.
Location: 9 Doyers St.
No menu. Friendly staff. No bullsh-t. While the neo-speakeasy scene is often criticized for being pretentious and costly, Attaboy is run by people who truly love their business and want to share that love with their customers. Aside from the aforementioned hidden entrance, the staff makes the bar feel like the living room of a cooler, more knowledgeable friend. The decor is simple and the drinks are delicious. While other bars on the list have been more of an experience, this is the bar I keep coming back to.
Location: 134 Eldridge St.