You may have heard whispers about a few new bar openings lately.
One19 opened in October. Then came Venice Bar, Saint Tuesday, Sei Less, UnPublished at Serafina in the Sky and Dom. What do they all have in common? They all hark back to the speakeasies of yore. This is not to mention simply somewhat hidden bars like Nothing Really Matters, whose owner Adrien Gallo acknowledges its tucked-away location fits the bill, but doesn’t shout it out as a branding opportunity.
Speakeasies are nothing new. Formed out of force of necessity when alcohol was basically banned for thirteen years, they existed between 1920 and 1933. And never again.
Speakeasy concepts are a more recent invention. Being that alcohol is presently legal, anything described as a speakeasy in a press release, or via social media channels, requires a qualifier like -influenced, -inspired, or -themed. As a result, the best speakeasy concepts in NYC share some common elements, but they don’t combine to create an obvious genre like, say, sports bars.
There isn't, you know, a password or anything like that.
“There’s tiers of speakeasyness,” says PDT owner Jeff Bell. An acronym for Please Don’t Tell, it opened in the East Village in 2007 as the platonic ideal of the form: Located down a few stairs, inside the hotdog shop Crif Dogs and through a phone booth. “Anything unmarked, kind of is a speakeasy, in effect, because that’s what the origin of the concept is. Something that’s hidden. Some sort of unadvertised entrance is a really general way of saying it,” Bell says, among many caveats.
“We don't actually consider ourselves a speakeasy,” says Gallo at Nothing Really Matters, which opened on New Year’s Eve. “Just because a speakeasy is purposely hidden. And we're just naturally hidden.”
Nothing Really Matters’ hiding place is through the entrance to the downtown 1 train on the south side of 50th Street just west of Broadway. The vestibule outside the bar is telegenically untidy, and its door is to the right before you swipe into the system. Its large, tinted windows, further obscured by the vertical wooden blinds that Gallo designed, would be easy to miss at rush hour.
“There isn't, you know, a password or anything like that,” Gallo says.
Like most of the hospitality professionals interviewed for this article, he also says that, as was the case before the pandemic, rent on smaller or unusual spaces like Nothing Really Matters’ is relatively more affordable. After the past two years, even a marginally lower price tag is more attractive than ever. On the consumer side, Gallo attributes a collective urge for fledgling rebellion to the demand for secluded spaces.
There's a certain amount of craftsmanship that goes into these smaller venues.
“Maybe it's because we have been alone for so long for the last two years, and we've been told, because of the virus spreading, to stay outdoors, to constantly be six feet away from everybody, he says. “In response to that, unfortunately, or fortunately, human nature always pushes back. I think there is something to be said about being really excited about being in closed doors with a group of people that you love, or you're, or you're going to meet, and you're going to party with.”
Gallo also suggests that the pandemic may have both reignited and fueled the public’s desire for novelty.
“I think, for a lot of speakeasies, the journey of getting there or knowing about it is half of it, right? It's kind of the allure. And that's actually kind of fun, right? So we've been sitting at home, staring at each other or staring ourselves in the mirror or whatever, or we're reaching out to people on Zoom constantly. And now we get to go exploring to try to find something totally unique, that may have just opened that no one's experienced yet. So we're really excited about that.”
A few blocks downtown, UnPublished opened inside the Pod hotel at Times Square in February, through Serafina in the Sky and beyond a velvet curtain. UnPublished’s conceit recalls venues that emerged at the outset in NYC’s last speakeasy-style resurgence: Operators do not plan to list it on reservation platforms, and aspiring guests are advised to acquire a “ghost number” for easiest entry. It all creates a more egalitarian exclusivity than the private clubs like Zero Bond. UnPublished’s marketing partner and operator Karim Amatullah says that recent public interest around that and similar spots may be one reasonable explanation for the speakeasy theme’s return.
The pandemic mimicked the time of the prohibition where [people] had to join in secret to leisurely drink.
For guests fresh off of long stretches at home during the pre-vaccine pandemic, leaving our small NYC apartments for these slightly-less-small speakeasy-style bars, where someone else is making the cocktails and there’s stuff to Instagram, is a huge improvement, without enormous membership fees.
“There's a certain amount of craftsmanship that goes into these smaller venues,” Amatullah says. “People really are trying to cater to a certain not just aesthetic, but a certain maybe a highbrow type of life. Meaning you want something that's just a little bit more sophisticated.”
“I'm also the consumer,” he says. “I look to not just go to places, but I also try to create spaces where people can go and they feel as if they can take a moment off. There's quality in the decor and the design and the aesthetic quality that goes into the services and the people that are taking care of you.”
Sometimes it's nice to have someone else simmer the simple syrup, for example.
Dom, in Gramercy, is even newer, having opened underground on 22nd Street (around the corner from its technical Park Avenue South address) on March 4.
“I would describe DOM as an exclusive lounge for those that enjoy the concepts of art, fashion, music, culture, and elaborate cocktails,” owner Albert Trummer wrote in an email. He connects dots across the last century to form a constellation that illustrates 2022’s trend.
“I think this is due to New York becoming more inclusive and customers wanting to feel closer together,” he wrote. “The pandemic mimicked the time of the prohibition where [people] had to join in secret to leisurely drink and I think this is why a rise of hidden and speakeasy bars have populated within the last several months.”
The class of bars is continuing to rapidly expand, with even more openings planned for the coming months. However, the new additions to the scene might relax one key tenant of the genre: The appearance of being difficult to get into.
You could really have some roundtables on this.
Business partners and friends Lindsay Weiss and Alyssa Golub will open a provisions shop called Pine & Polk in Soho-adjacent Hudson Square this spring. They’ll also run a cocktail bar called PS in the back.
“So many of the speakeasies that are known in New York are really hard to get into, and really hard to get reservations to.” Weiss says.
“We want to be an approachable hidden concept,” Golub says. “Sometimes when you go into a speakeasy, and it's crowded, and you don't have a reservation, or you need to wait, and they don't really care about you. And that's not to say everyone, but for me, the sense of hospitality is an extremely important part of our operation. And I want everyone to, even if you can't get in, to feel welcome that you should come back again.”
Still, as more new speakeasy-themed spots open, some modern classics of the genre continue to struggle. For example: Last week’s unwelcome rumors that Angel’s Share, the discrete East Village bar that began NYC’s speakeasy concept resurgence in 1993, might be forced to close or move.
If Angel’s Share does have to close or relocate after nearly 30 years as the archetype modern speakeasy, there’s no doubt its influence will continue to reverberate throughout the category.
These bars shift shapes: One might have a heavy wooden unmarked door up a staircase, another might just be behind a curtain and the next might be on the other side of a phone booth, like at PDT, although Bell unsettlingly points out that the city’s youngest legal drinkers may not even recognize one. They mostly aim to recreate the ironic appearance of seclusion, albeit one that has lines out the door, with any luck.
Bell also points out that, like the genre itself, the reasons for the resurgence are both old and new: The common desire to know about places nobody else–or at least fewerbody else–does. Post pandemic commercial vacancies that are particularly conducive to speakeasy concepts and not much else. Social media, in general. It's almost easier to identify why they are than what they are.
“You could really have some roundtables on this that I would not like to participate in because I think that people take stuff too seriously, what it is and isn’t,” Bell says. “It is what you want it to be.”
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