Photo by Troy Hahn.
Many moons ago, before it regained its senses, the United States outlawed alcohol. I shudder at the thought of having been of age during that period. But alas! That dark, dry period of U.S. history left us New Yorkers with something to smile about: speakeasies. These hidden bars—some authentic, most replicas— take you back to a time when drinking meant hiding behind fake walls, contraband and breaking the law, which really just makes it all that much more bittersweet.
I checked out a speakeasy-style bar for a nice change to my usual friday night drink and a taste of this historical, and less known about, part of the city.
I walked into Crif Dogs on St. Marks Place and was greeted by a vintage Pac-Man arcade machine, a phone booth and a hot dog menu longer than necessary. A normal reaction was to curse at Google for sending me to the wrong place. But I remembered there must be more than meets the eye in this small hot dog joint and the instructions I was given where explicit. Enter the phone booth, turn the rotary dial to 1 and wait, you’ll be in for a surprise. A door opens, and if you have a reservation or an insider, a hostess will seat you. Once you’re settled in, walking around is frowned upon so just chill, groove to an eclectic mix of songs, and have a try at some of the bar’s signature drinks. And Please Don’t Tell—P.D.T. for short—is the name of the bar, and it’s only for a cool crowd. Wouldn’t want anyone tipping off the cops.
While Gladys Knight and the Pips sang about a train to Georgia, Jeff Bell, P.D.T.’s 29-year-old general manager, explained that on most nights at least some people don’t get in. With thirteen bar seats, some booths, and no standing allowed, space is limited. So plan accordingly.
A Paddington drink on the bar of PDT.
Victor was bartending when I arrived, and he didn’t disappoint. The bartenders here are some of the best in the city. I started with the bar’s signature Benton’s Old Fashioned, made with bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup, and angostura bitters. The drink is served with a huge ice cube topped with an orange peel. Being a rum guy, I later tried the Paddington, which Victor served in a chilled glass after rubbing grapefruit peel on its rim. With a medley of citrus flavors, the Paddington brought back memories of warm Caribbean evenings. Wanting the full experience, I ordered a specialty hot dog not found on Crif’s menu next door. The 2Pok Dog, developed by chef Andy Ricker, packs a spicy kick that somehow complemented my drinks. I now think tasting the juxtaposition of a deep-fried hot dog and top-shelf cocktail should be on everybody’s bucket list.
Facade of The Back Room in the Lower East Side. Photo by Troy Hahn.
Further downtown, past a sign that reads “Lower East Side Toy Co.” is The Back Room Bar. This place is the rebirth of a bar that operated during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Jewish gangsters like Bugsy Siegal and Meyer Lansky were known to access the bar through Ratner’s, a long gone kosher restaurant on Delancey.
I first scoped out Back Room on a Sunday night. Guys in high waters held in place by suspenders and gals in poodle skirts danced to 1950s rock tunes like Gene Wyatt’s Lover Boy. For a second I thought I was at Back to the Future’s Enchantment Under the Sea dance at Hill Valley High. The music was 50s but the bar is 20s-30s. Drinks, like the Lynchburg Lemonade, a light selection made with Jack Daniel’s and Cointreau, are served in teacups, just in case there’s a raid. Beer bottles come in brown paper bags. I asked Pete, the guy at the door, to see the bar’s coveted hidden room. It’s a no go, he said. I’d have to come back some other time. Which of course, I did.
Bookshelf that hides that is also the door to the secret room within The Back Room. Photo by Troy Hahn.
On my second visit, Pete, led me across the dance floor until we were facing a bookshelf. Before I knew it, we were in the secret room on the other side. There I met the bar’s general manager: Tim Bassett, a 6’8” NBA champ with a chunky gold ring to prove it. He said the room is “the worst kept secret in New York.” There’s a small bar on the left and seating below exposed brick on the right. I look at an old Pabst ad behind the bar and imagine ordering a drink. The deejay on the other side of the bookshelf plays jazz. Now this feels like Prohibition.
Back in the main room, Pete, sounding as Brooklyn as ever, recommends the PTZ, a bourbon-based drink with hints of citrus. I chill with the punch-packing drink until I figure it’s time to go. No need to push my luck with the law.
Room decorated in 20's furniture within The Back Room. Photo by Troy Hahn.
Whether you opt for the low-key and high-end ambiance of P.D.T., with taxidermied beasts on its walls, or want to try dancing to musical genres from a bygone era at The Back Room Bar, give it a go on your next visit to New York. There’s just something exclusive about knowing that some guys are outside looking for a bar, oblivious to what’s going on beyond the walls they see, while you’re inside sipping on a delicious bit of history.