Sometimes you want to go where absolutely nobody knows your name.
It’s hard to imagine a world without alcohol (at least here in the US). Yet for 13 long, dry years, from 1920 to 1933, drinkers were forced into hiding, with revelers in cities like New York and Chicago sneaking into rollicking underground spaces protected by cryptic passwords and secret entrances. This is how the speakeasy was born: the term allegedly came from clients having to whisper (or speak “easy”) their password when trying to gain entry to the hidden watering hole.
Did they feel shame? Oh Please. The thrill was in the hiding.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933, yet the mystique of the speakeasy remains. Chumley’s, one of the most notorious and long-lasting of these hidden bars, closed its doors in the West Village during the pandemic. But you can still go back in time to sip cocktails and enjoy the aura of subterfuge in an array of dark, furtive (quasi) gin joints. Though you’ll want to make a reservation for most, you won’t have to go knocking on doors. Here are the five best NYC speakeasies you can visit now.
9 West 26th Street
It’s easy to walk past this unmarked doorway on West 26th Street several times before you find the entrance, which is exactly how Apotheke NoMad wants it. The original speakeasy of the same name opened in 2008 in Chinatown (there’s also one in LA) and once you are guided down a dark set of stairs, you’ll be greeted by a low-lit bar with wooden booths and a large, partitioned banquette surrounded by stools. The drinks are named after apothecary items and fall under categories like Health & Beauty and Euphorics. You can find one of our favorites, a play on a spicy margarita called The Matador, under Stimulant; cantaloupe and habanero tincture create a tantalizing mix of sweet and spicy.
2292 Frederick Douglass Boulevard
The Harlem Renaissance was an outgrowth of Prohibition, so it should come as no surprise that this Renaissance-inspired lounge, which you’ll find behind a pandemic-style outdoor seating area on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is a cocktail lover’s haven. Just a few blocks from the Apollo Theater, Sugar Monk is a candlelit den with tropical wallpaper decorated with lush vegetation; cushy royal blue banquettes line the walls.
But it’s the drinks that set it apart, crafted with house-made, artisanal liqueurs, bitters and infusions—and decorated with colorful posies. Take a tour through the 29 original cocktails, all named after a creative or their endeavor, like the orange and cinnamon scented Madame Butterfly or the gin and cardamom concoction, the William Blake. Sugar Monk is so good, we’d almost prefer keeping it secret.
132 9th Avenue
Bathtub Gin, on the border of Chelsea and the Meatpacking district, is hidden behind a bodega storefront, though you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see a clutch of GenZs begging the bouncer for entrance. This speakeasy itself is a doorway back in time, with a wide bar and a main seating area revealing fleur-de-lis wallpaper, close knit tables, and a claw foot bathtub which doubles as centerpiece and Instagram prop; it is, the owners promise, a chance to “escape reality and become somebody else.” The cocktail menu comes in the form of a newspaper blaring headlines like “A Classic New York City Gin Joint,” but do make sure to check the online schedule for weekly live entertainment, which ranges from jazz to burlesque to disco.
96 South Street
The House of the Red Pearl is the poshest of our picks, in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new Tin Building (in the old Fulton Fish Market space). Hidden behind a heavy curtain towards the back of the Mercantile East market, this retro Asian spot, layered in crimson velvet and chinoiserie, is more restaurant than lounge, though you can certainly sip swanky cocktails atop the sleek black stone bar while you wait for a table. The drinks lean on far eastern flavors, like the vodka-based Yuzu Drop and a Raspberry Lychee Bellini, which you can pair with upscale snacks that riff on Chinese takeout classics.
The Speakeasy at Great Jones Distillery
The Speakeasy at Great Jones Distillery in NoHo has the distinction of being the only bar on our list that was once an actual rum runner’s tunnel during Prohibition. We love that you can even hear the subway rumble by while you sip your house-distilled bourbon and rye. Though the entire distillery spans almost 30,000 square feet, the intimate basement space holds only 25 imbibers. However, if you’re ready to go above ground, you can book dinner at The Grid, the distillery’s bar and restaurant, helmed by chef Adam Raskin (known for stints at Per Se and Le Cirque); or check the updated calendar to book a table for one of the many live events.
Hero image courtesy of Tobey Grumet Segal