5:06 PM EST, November 25, 2013
It was past midnight deep in Chinatown. Not even the cabby wanted to stick around
Past the heaps of day-old fried rice and discarded takeout boxes was a lone bouncer – suited up in black with a red tie. He waved us in. Behind an unmarked door, the Holy Grail of drinking in New York City beckoned.
Over two weekend trips to New York, I surveyed 13 speakeasies, gathered from a wish list from top barkeeps from Seattle to Miami's prime mixology spot — The Broken Shaker. It was about three bars a night, stumbling around Manhattan.
The term "speakeasy" is thrown around a lot these days, a casualty of hipsters. It hails back to the Prohibition when alcohol was illegal and bars needed to be hidden. These days, speakeasies stay true to that clandestine theme. They specialize in complicated cocktails and often are themed to that period, the 20's.
And while these drinks cost as much as that margarita in South Beach, they take longer to prepare and are a lot stronger. For most, two drinks will take you down, but I trained my tolerance for this trip. Many of the mixologists (the preferred term as opposed to bartenders) are talented enough to serve up a cocktail to your taste — from smoky to juicy — with exotic ingredients like egg whites, jalepenos and apple butter.
Here are my favorite spots of my tour:
Please Don't Tell or PDT (113 St. Marks Pl., East Village; pdtnyc.com): This is the mecca of drinking, the speakeasy that spawned hundreds of hidden bars. Reservations are necessary, but hard to land. After two days of calling, we finally landed a spot – at 2 a.m. When that call came, we bolted out of another bar without ordering.
Downstairs, it's a colorful hot dog joint, but there's an old school phone booth hidden in the corner. Pick up the phone to make a reservation and if your time comes up, a wall in the booth opens up to the bar. Photos are forbidden, but imagine a man cave. Busts of animals line the walls while bottles of bitters line the bar. And if you get hungry, you can still order that hot dog – delivered through a hidden window by the liquor bottles.
The Library, NoMad Hotel (1170 Broadway, Flatiron; thenomadhotel.com): Remember when the Beast reveals the library to Belle in the cartoon? This bar is that moment realized. And the books are real – it's not just some hipster spot with cardboard fakes. I spotted Tom Wolfe in the pile.
This had to be my favorite bar. The drinks were divine, perfectly balanced. Just to compare, I tried my favorite drink (a spicy cucumber concoction) at PDT, Mayahuel and this spot, and they won hands down.
Apotheke (9 Doyers St., Chinatown; http://www.apothekenyc.com): This is the bar in Chinatown with the lone bouncer. From the front, you could never tell that the door opened up to a scene from the roarings '20s, complete with guilded metal ceilings. The hipster with a beard playing the electric bass was a little jarring though.
Speakeasies used to be undercover apothecaries, so these mixologists wore white jackets like pharmacists. The drinks were also themed by pseodo-medical needs, like stress relievers, aphrodisiacs and euphoric enhancers. But even though the cocktails were tasty, they will break the bank. The menu doesn't even note how much things cost, a trick high end restaurants try to get away with.
Attaboy: (134 Eldridge St., Lower East Side) This was another favorite, because we spotted Rich Sommer, aka Harry Crane of Mad Men, at this bar. He's reportedly a very loyal customer. They even have a drink named after him there, called "Sommer in the City," a concoction of Fernet Branca and coffee liqueur. This is the kind of bar that you can close out the night (or twilight) with. They make anything you want and introduce your palate to new flavors.
Death + Company (433 E 6th St., East Village; deathandcompany.com): Forget trying to get in on a Friday or Saturday night, if you want to get in this goth-inspired haven, go when it opens at 6 p.m. The drinks are good, but I did get worried when the mixologist looked up the recipes.
Mayahuel (304 E 6th St., East Village; mayahuelny.com): Their liquors of choice were tequila and mezcal, two of my favorites. Not only were their drinks wonderfully spicy, but the bar was also easy to get in – there are two floors and no need for reservations. They also serve everything from popcorn to paella. Many of these speakeasies don't serve food, so you have to come with a full stomach, or risk instant inebriation.
The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog (30 Water St., Financial District; deadrabbitnyc.com): Tales of the Cocktail, a convention for cocktail insiders, named Dead Rabbit the "World's Best New Bar." So, we planned our hotel around this bar, with the idea we'll crawl home from there. They played up the speakeasy theme the most with old school drink cups (moutache guards!), hardcover menus with drink histories and suspendered-moustached mixologists.
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