A Tour Inside NYC's Best Hidden Bars and Restaurants
There is no shortage of bars and restaurants in New York City. But to find a hidden gem with a compelling history makes dining and drinking out so much more interesting. A new book from Untapped Cities, New York Hidden Bars and Restaurants, provides a detailed guide to some of New York's most eccentric, bizarre and amazing places to grab a cocktail or a bite to eat. Here is just a taste:
Doyers Street in Chinatown was once called “The Bloody Angle” because the curvilinear road enabled gangs to creep up on one another unseen. Today, at that precise bend of the street is an apothecary-themed speakeasy, aptly named Apotheke. Located in a space formerly occupied by a karaoke and dumpling bar, the only sign that marks the location says “Chemist.”
The bartenders wear lab coats (except on Prohibition Wednesdays), serving up a seasonally changing menu with a holistic, “farm to bar” approach above an illuminated bar made from Carrera marble. As such, the ingredients come from New York City greenmarkets, organic vendors, and their own rooftop garden, along with local Chinatown markets and shops.
Every day until 8 pm, 88 Palace is one of those enormous Chinatown restaurants where dim sum circulates around on rolling carts. But every few months, it becomes a massive dance party after hours run by the organization Dark Disco. The DJs rotate and so does the crowd, but Dark Disco aims to please. As they state, “Dark Disco is committed to partying with a good sound system, lots of shots and a venue with shady corners, where you can love and hate equally and then drink and dance it off.”
Of all the hidden bars in New York City, the Campbell Apartment is the grandest and most elegant.
In 1864, and industrialization was beginning to dramatically alter the landscape and politics of New York. Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt had risen from humble beginnings to become a shipping magnate and one of the wealthiest men in the country. After making a fortune in steamships, he bought out the railroad and set about rebuilding Grand Central to reflect his wealth and glory. He let his friend, the tycoon John W. Campbell, set up a private office inside the station starting in 1923. At once, Campbell furnished the place with Oriental rugs, 13th-century Italian furniture, priceless porcelain vases, a huge leaded-glass window, and an enormous stone fireplace. Campbell lived in the suburbs, but took great pride in his gorgeous office, and often entertained guests there in the evenings. He used the space until the 1940s. After Campbell moved out, the room was used as a holding cell for the police, CBS’s executive offices, and was left empty and abandoned for a while before it finally reopened to the public as a cocktail bar in 1999.
Nitecap may be one of the Lower East Side’s newest hidden bars, but the building’s boozy history predates the little watering hole by over one hundred years. Schapiro’s Wine Company was founded in 1899, when the area was full of Jewish immigrants living in tenements. The family originally pressed the grapes for their kosher wines in the cellar and sold their wares in the ground floor storefront. Though the company moved to New Jersey in 2000 and shuttered in 2007, the buzzy restaurant and cocktail bar that now stands on that block of Rivington Street adopted the name Schapiro’s as an homage to the original.
Though in a well-trafficked neighborhood, and not as hidden as some of the other bars around, Virgola is a special case. This bar is in no ordinary building: it’s tucked into an alleyway from the 1800s, which was uncovered and carefully restored. When owner Joseph Marazzo was building this Italian wine bar, he wanted to replicate the way thresholds in Rome feel under one’s feet, as if the stone from outside continues inside. Luckily for him, the unusual space that houses Virgola has bluestone floors common to Greenwich Village.
Marazzo is third-generation Sicilian, and Rome holds a special place in his heart. His girlfriend at the time was Roman, and while she was arguing with him one day, she shouted “virgola,” the way Americans might enunciate “period” at the end of a sentence for emphasis. Marazzo didn’t immediate know what “virgola” meant, but deduced that it was the Italian word for “comma”—a pause that indicates a shift in a sentence. He named his bar Virgola: a place to take a break.
Although the United Nations Headquarters can be visited on guided tours, one of the best-kept secrets is the Delegates Dining Room. Despite what its name suggests, the restaurant is also open to the public with advance reservation.
The buffet format at the dining room means that you’ll be brushing past and sitting amidst ambassadors, dignitaries, and delegates, all while taking in impressive views of the East River, Roosevelt Island, and Long Island City. You’ll have to go through an airport-style security and ID check, but the process is quick. On the way to the dining room, you’ll get a chance to walk through the iconic entrance hall of the General Assembly. Due to security requirements you have to be escorted, but the escort functions more like a guide, pointing out fun facts about the buildings. It’s almost like having your own exclusive tour.
The Society of Illustrators is one of those hidden gems that even some of its neighbors don’t realize exists— particularly the bar and dining room on the third floor of this Upper East Side club. Yet, the organization has been active since 1901 and in its current home, an 1875 carriage house, since 1935. Though the Society of Illustrators is a membership-based club, it’s open to the public every day the club is open because it’s also a museum. In addition to a permanent collection of 1,800 works, the Society hosts special exhibitions throughout the year, weekly nude sketch nights, and themed sketch nights ranging from burlesque to boxing. The Society’s first monthly dinners in the early 20th century were attended by esteemed illustrators and personages like Mark Twain, Gloria Swanson, and N.C. Wyeth. The Cotton Club Band and Jimmy Durante performed at the club in the 1920s. The monthly brunches and dinners continue today in the dining room, with a charming historical bar, an outdoor patio and a rotating exhibition of artwork.