Where to drink and not be seen.
When craft cocktails first took off in New York, they were associated with a particular kind of bar—the speakeasy. Invisible to passersby, these bars often had hard-to-find entrances and a feeling of secrecy, accessible only to those in-the-know.
Today, many of these bars live on, but take a more relaxed approach—no “secret codes” needed to get in. Such is the case at Slowly Shirley, an underground bar below Happiest Hour in the West Village. According to Jim Kearns, co-owner of both bars, “The fact that these bars feel hidden away makes them somehow more cozy and inviting. Even though you don’t need a secret handshake to get in, there’s always that initial moment of wonder that comes with that first discovery.”
We asked Kearns about his other favorite hidden-away bars in New York. Here’s what he had to say:
“The most storied bar on my list,” says Kearns; “The space dates back to the mid-19th century when it was a haunt for literary and artistic figures such as Walt Whitman. Over the years the space changed hands a number of times, becoming numerous bars, nightclubs, and even a brothel at one point.” Today it’s a lively, unpretentious underground bar, “fun and cheerful, playing with guests' expectations of a ‘hidden’ basement bar.” drinksweetwater.com
For more than a decade, since well before 21st-century speakeasies took off, Angel’s Share has been a destination for cocktail lovers. “It’s the bar that first showcased Japanese cocktail technique in New York, situated above a ramen shop on 3rd Avenue,” says Kearns. “Both the drinks and service are impeccable.”
Walk through popular Fort Greene restaurant Walter’s to find this Japanese-inspired lounge. “It combines the best of all worlds, when it comes to Japanese eating and drinking,” according to Kearns. “Shuko vet Yael Peet is behind the creative izakaya-style food menu, which is complemented by a full Japanese-style bar program and an extensive list of sake, shochu, and Japanese whiskies.” karasubk.com
“In its previous incarnation as Milk & Honey, this bar jump-started the craze for ‘hidden’ bars in New York,” says Kearns. “Using the model of a prohibition-era speakeasy, Sasha Petraske revived classic cocktails, with a stringent system of building drinks, a hand-cut ice program, and fresh ingredients. It may sound trite now, but it's only because everyone has tried to do it since.” Reopened in 2013 as Attaboy, the intimate Eldridge Street bar keeps the spirit of the original, while making the place a bit more accessible; “the best of both worlds.”
You can’t talk about hidden bars without talking about PDT—Jim Meehan’s bar-through-a-phone-booth. “I think PDT did the best job capitalizing on the speakeasy craze of the ’00s, with its entry through a London-style telephone booth inside of Crif Dogs,” says Kearns. “The cocktails have always been fantastic and the staff, lovely.” pdtnyc.com
Raines Law Room
Ring the doorbell to access the low-lit, romantic Raines Law Room—with a strong ‘20s vibe, as speakeasy as it gets. “It’s a perfect date spot,” according to Kearns. “The tables are dark and secluded, with the bar tucked away in the back, set up like a kitchen. The cocktail program, run by Meaghan Dorman, is rooted in classic cocktails, and she and her staff do an excellent job.” raineslawroom.com
Before even PDT, there was Freemans, opening in 2004 at the end of Freeman Alley. “Its importance to both the speakeasy craze and the proliferation of craft cocktails can't be downplayed,” says Kearns. “It was one of the first to feature a craft cocktail program in a restaurant context.” And hidden away at the end of a Lower East Side alley, “it advanced the appeal of hidden bars and restaurants.” freemansrestaurant.com
Death & Co.
Industry folks will always love Death & Co., another East Village cocktail pioneer. “It’s remained one of the world's best-regarded bars for over 10 years,” says Kearns. While craft cocktail culture has changed, Death & Co. has remained at the cutting edge, albeit with some constants — a dark, sexy space; an encyclopedic menu. deathandcompany.com