New York Has No Prohibition on Speak-Easies

If you make the right phone call, you can enjoy $12 cocktails in the clubby quarters of Please Don't Tell in the East Village.
If you make the right phone call, you can enjoy $12 cocktails in the clubby quarters of Please Don't Tell in the East Village. (By Noah Kalina)
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[Map: NY Speakeasies]
By Sarah Maslin Nir
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Playing hard to get has, since time immemorial, been a surefire way to get gotten. New York night life's latest trend cribs this principle for finding love: Hint a little, reveal less and wait for the crowds to come flocking. That's the premise behind a spate of wildly popular clandestine bars that have cropped up in Manhattan in the past few years.

The Big Apple has a history of hiding its hot spots that dates to Prohibition, when speak-easies plied bootleg booze and homemade hooch in lairs hidden (sorta) from the law. Although drinking is no longer a crime, there's something deliciously seedy about tippling behind an unmarked door. New York's hidden night life imbues even the blandest martini with the tang of contraband. Here are some Manhattan spots trying, not so hard, to hide. And, oh yes, the drinks are far more exotic these days.

La Esquina, 114 Kenmare St., 646-613-7100, The glinting chrome taco stand between SoHo and Little Italy serves delicious Mexican street fare. But as tasty as its cheap tacos may be, they can't possibly explain the well-heeled horde milling around on the pavement outside each night.

Those lucky enough to pass muster with the clipboard-wielding sentry are whisked down a staircase that leads to . . . the kitchen? Greeted with a chorus of "holas," guests dodge cooks and pans en route to a flickering subterranean lounge. Here chandeliers drip rivulets of candle wax, mosaics depict gangstas in lowriders and tequila can cost hundreds -- per shot.

It's a favorite of Beyoncé, Jay-Z and others, who dine on such exotic fare as chapulines (sauteed grasshoppers) and cricket tostadas, and sip the excellent margaritas. Tip: La Esquina's highly selective door policy is breachable by making a simple dinner reservation.

Please Don't Tell, 113 St. Marks Place, 212-614-0386, Crif Dogs in the East Village serves a great hot dog, but while you're chewing, step into the old phone booth tucked away in a corner of the tiny dive and pick up the phone. You'll be greeted by the hostess of Please Don't Tell. The back side of the booth will creak open to reveal the voice on the other end of the line.

Behind her are the clubby, dimly lit confines of a bar from yesteryear. Taxidermied animals cast a watchful glass eye from the exposed brick walls. It's a world away from the fast-food shop; one sip of the meticulous cocktails ($12 each) reveal it's a world away from other bars as well. Sprigs of thyme, honey, lavender and egg-white foam grace the season-specific drinks. Chase one with a tater tot from next door for a highbrow/lowbrow taste sensation.

Tip: Please Don't Tell's day-of reservation line opens at 3 p.m. daily; call as close to that time as possible, as they're often fully booked within 20 minutes.

The Eldridge, 247 Eldridge St., 212-505-7600, Harder to swallow are the cocktails at the Eldridge, because though they aspire to nuanced greatness, they're often cloyingly sweet and they cost $23 to $32. But it's a price some are willing to pay for access to this tiny Lower East Side nightspot, tucked behind the false front of a bookshop.

Behind the velvet rope, the windows of "Eldridge New and Used Books" are filled with texts from Freud to fiction. But don't judge this bookstore by its cover; inside, it's a standard-issue mini-club, populated by sports stars and their arm candy. At its inception last year, the Eldridge was for card-carrying members only; it now accepts reservations, but with the exorbitant price of inebriation, we have plenty of reservations of our own about going there.

Apotheke, 9 Doyers St., 212-406-0400, This elbow-shaped street of shabby storefronts in Chinatown was once known as "the bloody angle" for the warfare waged there by tongs (gangs). The red sign outside one of the eateries says "Gold Flower Restaurant," but come nightfall there's no evidence of won tons or egg rolls.

It's said this was once an opium den; now the wooden doors fling back to reveal illuminated walls of bottles and beakers. The sepia-toned club is modeled after an old apothecary; even the light fixtures are made from blown-glass distilling apparatus. Counterintuitive as it may seem, the drinks are supposed to be medicinal: Sip from the "Health and Beauty" section of the menu or guzzle one of the "Pain Killers." The exquisite concoctions include a pyrotechnic absinthe spectacle performed by your lab-coat-wearing bartender.

Back Room, 102 Norfolk St., 212-228-5098. Unlike many of its copycat competitors, Back Room actually was a speak-easy during Prohibition. The door, marked "Lower East Side Toy Company," takes you down a short flight of stairs and into a dark crevice between two tenement houses. The unlit alley gives way to wrought-iron stairs that lead up to an unmarked door and into a sexy, sofa-filled enclave. Back Room tips its hat to the space's history by serving drinks in teacups.

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