The secret's out

A wave of exclusive new hot spots trade on an age-old NYC tradition: secrecy

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Photo: Cinzia Reale-Castello

New Yorkers are a competitive bunch even when socializing: We want to see and taste things before everyone else does. As a result, we're drawn to hidden underground alcoves and members-only sanctums. In recent months, however, the concept has gotten out of control: Every other week there seems to be a new secret spot opening up—a faux speakeasy or a joint at the end of an alley—and more are coming. But this is nothing new: New York has seen these kinds of venues pop up continually over the last hundred years as property owners—faced with Prohibition, off-the-grid streets, odd geography and rising rents—learned to be creative with whatever space they could get. The following spots all have a distinct air of exclusivity, with some dating back to a time before Prada-clad hipsters roamed the earth.

THE UNDERGROUND EATERY


La Esquina (106 Kenmare St at Cleveland Pl, 646-613-7100), the city's latest not-so-secret subterannean hotspot, takes the ultracool basement vibe to new heights (or depths), going far beyond predecessors like Pravda (281 Lafayette St between Houston and Prince Sts, 212-226-4944), Mercer Kitchen (99 Prince St at Mercer St, 212-966-5454) and Suba (109 Ludlow St between Delancey and Rivington Sts, 212-982-5714). The space is hidden under a taquera and you have to check in with a girl holding a clipboard (reservations are essential) before passing through the kitchen downstairs to enter the bar and dining room below. Far older than any of these downtown destinations is the Oyster Bar at Grand Central (Grand Central Terminal, Lower Concourse, 42nd St at Park Ave, 212-490-6650), which has been stealthily serving seafood below gorgeous vaulted ceilings for 92 years.

THE END-OF-THE-ALLEY SPOT


The initial appeal of Freemans (2 Freeman Alley off Rivington St between Bowery and Chrystie St, 212-420-0012) was the relative obscurity of the location at the end of a tiny Lower East Side alley; you'd pass right by it if you didn't know where to look. Oddly enough, it's a place to see and be seen. The opposite is true at The Blue Mill Tavern (50 Commerce St at Barrow St, 212-352-0009), a not-especially-hip restaurant that sits at the end of a dark, tree-lined street (pictured) in the former Grange Hall space. New owners last year reopened the 100-year-old institution as an Art Deco--style eatery with appealing blue-plate specials. Even less sceney, and harder to find, is Doyers Vietnamese Restaurant (11 Doyers St between Bowery and Pell St, 212-513-1521)—formerly known as Vietnam—a scruffy but excellent underground dining spot tucked away on an elbow-shaped Chinatown alley that looks like something out of a movie.

THE SPEAKEASY


Ever since cocktails became trendy again, bars and restaurants have jumped on the opportunity to evoke the speakeasy vibe. Two relative newcomers, Little Branch (20--22 Seventh Ave South at Leroy St, 212-929-4360) and East Side Company Bar (49 Essex St between Broome and Grand Sts, 212-614-7408), use low-key, barely noticeable plaques to greet customers and both bars are situated partially underground. There isn't a sign to speak of at Single Room Occupancy (60 W 53rd St at Ninth Ave, 212-765-6299); you have to find the blue light and ring a bell before you can enter the narrow basement-level bar. Employees Only (510 Hudson St between Christopher and W 10th Sts, 212-242-3021) is neither hidden nor hard to get into, but the place capitalizes on retro charm: Bartenders wear white chefs' coats and make old-fashioned cocktails. The classic: Chumley's (86 Bedford St between Barrow and Grove Sts, 212-675-4449), which dates back to Prohibition days.

THE MEMBERS-ONLY CLUB


Set to open this month, the Core Club (66 E 55th St at Madison Ave, 212-381-7800) is the city's latest secret snob society. An annual membership fee of $55,000 keeps even the most enthusiastic wanna-bes out. Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio is crafting the menu for the restaurant inside the club. It sounds like a more-upscale version of Soho House (29--35 Ninth Ave at 13th St, 212-627-9800), which costs $1,300 a year—assuming you're cool enough to score a membership. Private social clubs have been around forever: Rao's (455 E 114th St at Pleasant Ave, 212-722-6709), a red-sauce joint in Harlem, has remained one of the most impenetrable dining rooms ever since it opened in 1896. Put simply: You have to know someone to get a reservation. Using a similar ploy, Sasha Petraske continues to keep the crowds out of his clubby Milk &Honey (134 Eldridge St between Broome and Delancey Sts) bar: You have to know the right phone number to gain access.

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