- Travel Home
- Travel News
8 modern speakeasies: New wave of U.S. bars taps into an old secret
The latest stateside bar trend -- with a drink named for expats -- is about getting your Americana on
These days, every major American city seems to have a modern rendition of a Prohibition-era speakeasy -- secret clubs where illegal alcohol was sold during the booze-ban days of 1920-1933.
Speakeasies might not be technically illegal nowadays, but their dated decor, hard-to-find entrances and innovative cocktails attempt to recreate an age when flavors were mixed to overpower the repulsive taste of rotgut hooch.
Which begs the question: why try to recapture the Temperance Movement?
“Sure, most [Prohibition era] speakeasies would be pretty awful,” says Christine Sismondo, author of "America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops."
“Some of them had dirt floors, they were in dark basements with inadequate lighting -- complete fire traps."
Also on CNN: Ultimate checklist for returning U.S. expats
“On the other end of things, there were gorgeous, well-known speakeasies where the chief of police had a regular table. These places were frequented by a mix of people. There were journalists, students, celebrities, artists, high society folks and mobsters. It was a thrill to mix with such a large group of diverse people.”
Even today there can be a sense of exhilaration when you walk down a dark alleyway and pass through a nondescript door into a subterranean world of tinkling ice cubes and old timey stemware.
The eight modern U.S. speakeasies below should give you a bit of the flavor. As it’s always been, finding the rest of the adventure is your business.
Note that some speakeasies do not publish phone numbers or maintain websites.
Also on CNN: 10 classic American experiences
The Raines Law Room, New York
Before the Noble Experiment, New York attempted its own temperance legislation with the Raines law, an 1896 liquor tax that prevented bars from serving alcohol on Sunday -- the only full day to drink for most men since they worked six days a week.
However, the law didn’t apply to hotels and a lot of establishments began adding bedrooms.
“They turned these saloons into makeshift hotels,” explains Sismondo. “And then you have a much easier way for prostitution to happen because there is so much privacy being given to patrons and working women.”
The Raines Law Room pays homage to the “Raines Law hotels” with private booths containing deep, plush Westchester couches that makes settling in for the evening almost inevitable.
Along with low lighting and velvet curtains, Victorian wallpaper is an added period touch. The filigree of the pattern consists of silhouettes of various carnal acts, serving as a subliminal message for lascivious patrons.
House specialty: Old Cuban. Made with Flor de Caña seven-year rum, lime juice, simple syrup, fresh mint, Angostura Bitters, Chandon sparkling wine.
48 W. 17th St., between 5th and 6th Avenues, New York; Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-3 a.m, Sunday 8 p.m.-1 a.m.
The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., Philadelphia
During Prohibition, Max “Boo Boo” Hoff ran America’s largest bootleg ring out of the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company in Philadelphia.
Now, one of the best drinking establishments in America assumes the same name in honor of the Jewish mobster who kept Philly wet through the Roaring Twenties.
Patrons can expect finely dressed servers providing pre-Prohibition cocktail suggestions, an education and a reminder of what Boo Boo was fighting for.
House specialty: Demon Tied to a Chair in My Brain. Made with Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum, Maurin Quina, Clement Creole Shrubb, fresh lemon juice.
112 S. 18th St., Philadelphia; +1 267 467 3277; Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Sunday 7 p.m.-2 a.m.
Also on CNN: Most bike-friendly cities in the United States
Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco
The unmarked door on the corner of Jones and O’Farrell under the sign reading “Anti-Saloon League” opens into the most elegantly decorated time machine in California, featuring intimate booths surrounded by crimson silk wallpaper and tin-tiled ceiling.
To enter, patrons must buzz in and give the password provided when they secured their reservation.
That’s not the last of the secrets -- there’s actually a speakeasy within the speakeasy.
A bookshelf opens to reveal a library and a liquor shelf serves as the gateway to the Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency, a separate bar that serves a higher dose of intimacy and exclusivity.
House specialty: The Pinkerton. Made with Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Laird’s 100 Proof Apple Brandy, Zucca amaro, Cardamaro amaro, cinnamon-infused orange bitters.
501 Jones St., San Francisco; +1 415 673 1921; Monday-Saturday, 6 p.m.-2 a.m., closed Sunday.
Cloak Room, Austin, Texas
A reporter meets with the Governor’s aide in the corner. A senator sits next to a lobbyist at the bar.
There’s no telling what sort of dealings have gone down since Cloak Room opened about four decades ago in the shadow of the Texas state capitol. The dark basement bar is a windowless, musty cavern, with a well-worn carpet and a jukebox filled with classics.
Newcomers beware: Cloak Room comes with a few rules, such as no excessive canoodling, no playing Johnny Cash after midnight, smoke only when the bartenders tell you it’s OK, mind your damn business and always respect Bev, the rule-enforcing bartender with the Texas-sized bouffant.
House specialty: The Bev Dog. Made with vodka, Kahlúa, milk, splash of Coke.
Cloak Room, 1300 Colorado St., Austin, Texas; +1 512 472 9808; Monday-Friday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., Saturday 8 p.m.-2 a.m., closed Sunday.
Also on CNN: World's 50 best beach bars
Angel’s Share, New York
“Angel’s Share is sort of the starting point of everything,” says Sismondo. “Milk & Honey owner Sasha Petraske went there one day and realized, ‘This is what America needs.’
“New York is packed full of stockbrokers, full of tourists, full of students. And they’re loud and they don’t know how to behave at a bar. So you open up this secret establishment and you have a civilized place to get away from the chaos of New York.”
Though the small room is often packed, Angel’s Share really is the perfect escape. The entrance is tucked away behind a Japanese restaurant in the East Village.
Groups of more than four are not welcome. Neither is photography, standing, shouting or ruckus of any kind. But it’s worth abiding by the rules so that you can relax in this almost-Zen sanctuary.
House specialty: Serenity. Made with citrus- and herb-infused vodka, homemade lychee liqueur, fresh ruby red grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice and a dash of rose water.
6 Stuyvesant St., 2/F, New York; +1 212 777 5415; Sunday-Wednesday 6 p.m.-1:30 a.m., Thursday 6 p.m.-2 a.m., Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-2:30 a.m.
The Varnish, Los Angeles
One century after Cole’s introduced the world to the French-dipped sandwich, the eatery opened the back door to its former kitchen to reveal one of the best bars in Los Angeles -- The Varnish.
Popular New York speakeasy Milk & Honey-owner Sasha Petraske is behind this dark-as-sin drinking establishment, helping lead the way in a town that, until recently, wasn’t known for its well-honed cocktails.
House specialty: Remember The Maine. Made with Pernod Absinthe, Heering Cherry liqueur, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Old Overholt Rye Whiskey.
118 E. Sixth St., Los Angeles; +1 213 622 9999; Daily 7 p.m.-2 a.m.
Also on CNN: U.S. eats in Tokyo
The Patterson House, Nashville, Tennessee
After visiting Chicago’s Violet Hour, Nashville entrepreneur Benjamin Goldberg realized Tennessee needed a classic speakeasy of its own, but one with a distinctly southern feel.
That doesn’t mean The Patterson House is a backcountry juke joint that serves whiskey in Mason jars.
The cocktail list is one of the most innovative in the country, and the signature ice balls are made with twice-filtered water frozen in a limited-released mold made in Japan. Yes, these are people who care inordinately about cocktails.
The roomy Patterson House is named after Tennessee Governor Malcolm R. Patterson, who vetoed statewide Prohibition at the beginning of the 20th century.
The best spot in the saloon is one of the 30 stools available at the 20-meter-long bar.
House specialty: Bacon Old Fashioned. Made with bacon-infused Four Roses Bourbon, maple syrup, coffee-pecan bitters, orange peel garnish.
1711 Division St., Nashville, Tennessee; +1 615 636 7724; Tuesday-Sunday 5 p.m.-3 a.m., closed Monday.
The Gibson, Washington, D.C.
Of course, we wouldn’t have had Prohibition or any of its consequences if it weren’t for the men of Capitol Hill.
In fact, even while banning it, the nation’s leading lights provided for some of the best boozing in America.
“The U.S. Government actually ran some speakeasies nearby and in New York, with the intent of catching bootleggers supplying the booze,” says Sismondo. “But patrons who figured it out eventually realized the government bought the best liquor and no one inside was ever going to get busted.”
In the District, you can pay homage to the 18th Amendment at The Gibson.
Find the black unmarked door in the U Street corridor.
Try the knob. If it’s unlocked, you’re in luck. If not, ring the bell and someone will come to take you to your table in the dark, unpretentious lounge, provided you have a reservation.
House specialty: The Expat. Made with Dolin Dry Vermouth, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, Plymouth Sloe Gin, Lemon, Peychaud's Bitters.
2009 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 232 2156; Monday-Thursday, Friday-Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m.,Sunday 6 p.m.-1 a.m
Also on CNN: America's most sinful cities