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Aug 05

New York’s Speakeasies. You didn’t hear this from us.

We kept hearing that PDT (Please Don’t Tell) was one of the best cocktail bars in the East Village, so one afternoon, as we were walking right by the address where the bar was meant to be, we thought we’d take a look. There was an apartment block with what looked like a closed business in the basement, and a hot dog joint next door. Maybe the bar had closed too?

But the hot dog joint has a little secret – a Maxwell Smart-style phone booth where you pick up the phone to gain entry to one of the city’s coolest speakeasy cocktail bars next door – PDT.

When we did our Greenwich Village Walk with local architect Michelle Cianfaglione, she mentioned that she was cataloguing all of New York City’s prohibition-era bars or speakeasies, so we jumped at the chance to learn more. To do that we went with Michelle to PDT to talk about her project in hushed tones and have some rather expensive, but deliciously-inventive cocktails. But you didn’t hear that from us of course…

Tell us about your quest to catalogue New York’s prohibition-era bars.
The project started as just a curious fascination, but because of all the interesting things I have found, I am planning on letting this subject be the first topic for my Cryptic New York blog on the city’s mysterious places and objects.

So what is a prohibition-era bar or ‘speakeasy’?
Prohibition began in 1920 and ended in 1933. By 1929 there were roughly 32,000 prohibition-era bars, or speakeasies, in New York City.  They began as small spaces, usually local, where people could go to have a drink. They would be secret, of course, so that meant that the space could be found in a basement, which was the most popular place to hide a bar. The drinks were nothing special, as the quality of alcohol during this time was very poor and most people were actually making their own spirits at home.

How do you go about doing a project like this?
For any type of cataloguing project you need to be highly interested in the thing you are trying to find and or research.

How far into the project are you?
I am almost done finding these very special bars and I am currently trying to go to visit them in person, which is essential in this process because you never know what you are going to find.  Also, the experience is the most important part of going to a speakeasy.

What makes the experience special?
Things like how you enter, what you say to get in, what type of seating they have, are all the reasons why you would go to a place like this over another bar.

Your favourites?
I have a few. The first would have to be the legendary 21 Club. It is a place that tells the story of not just the prohibition era, but the city of New York. The second would have to be the very first speakeasy that I went to which is The Back Room, mainly because of the very interesting way you enter and the 1920s décor inside the bar. The third would be one of the new bars made to look and feel like a speakeasy which is Raine’s Law Room. It takes the speakeasy typology to another level, not just by the way you enter but by the experience that you have inside.

Describe the speakeasy experience.
Entering a speakeasy should always be hard, or at least challenging, since, of course, they have to be hidden. There is never any music inside a true speakeasy because you had to ‘speak easy’ (in hushed voices), so as not to let the police know what was going on inside the bar.

There seems to be resurgence of popularity in speakeasies…
I would say the interest in recreating the speakeasy experience began around 2003, or at least that’s when I started noticing it. But what the new bars have done is take the speakeasy typology and combine this with handcrafted cocktails that you would not be able to get at a regular bar (nor at the original prohibition-era bars), such as drinks with a minimum of six ingredients.

Which of the original bars still exist?
The 21 Club is one of the best and most well known of the original speakeasies in New York.  The Back Room is also original.  There is another called Bill’s Gay Nineties which is probably the largest and oldest in New York.

How do visitors to New York find these bars?
It’s hard to find these bars without hearing about them first through a second party, which is the whole point.  What I would recommend is to do an Internet search, then search for the address, and then see if you can find the bar on your own. Take a couple of friends because going to one of these bars on your own can be kind of lonely. Its not a great place to make new friends because of the quiet ambiance.

Any words of advice?
When looking for one of these bars remember that the entrance won’t be obvious and that the entrance may lead to a totally different building.

Tips for doing a speakeasy bar crawl?
I’m trying to organize one for Context Travel and it’s hard because these bars are spread out all across Manhattan. They’re not all in the same neighbourhood.

Will you divulge one address to our readers?
I would say the easiest bar to start with is PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in the East Village since it’s fairly easy to figure out and has a casual dress code. I would then make my way to the more difficult locations.

Any chance of getting rejected? If so, where next?
Yes, if there is no sitting room in the bar you will be asked to wait until there is room.  My suggestion would be to get to the bar as it is opening if you are worried about not getting in. The after work crowd fills up these spaces pretty quickly.

If you’re planning a prohibition-era bar hop, visit Michelle’s blog Cryptic New York.

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