The Lure of the Speakeasy

A deeper dive into a new (yet also old) New York City trend

| 08 Jul 2022 | 11:14

If you take a walk around the streets of Manhattan, you’ll see tons of unique storefronts: a shoe store, an ice cream shop, a florist, a thrift store or a fancy French restaurant. What you might not realize is that any one of those storefronts may be housing a hidden bar underneath the store that you can only access through a secret door or perhaps by delivering a passcode. They’re well-known, yet at the same time inconspicuous. That is the art of the speakeasy.

Almost 300,000 speakeasies are believed to have operated in New York City during the Prohibition era (1920 to 1933). They served as spots where businesses could serve alcohol without being targeted by law enforcement and their designs ranged from fancy jazz clubs to one-room basements. Some of the most well-known speakeasies during the Roaring 20s were Landmark Tavern (626 11th Ave.), Connie’s Inn (2221 Seventh Ave.), and Chumleys (86 Bedford St.), where Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are said to have enjoyed a cocktail or two.

But speakeasies have long been mounting their comeback and over the past decade have begun to regain their popularity, particularly on the Upper East Side. While I’m familiar with the history of speakeasies, I’m much less familiar with their reemergence into the New York City bar scene, and I still have far too many questions surrounding their existence. What exactly are they? What makes a good speakeasy? How do they work? And personally, my most pressing question: how do people even know that they are there? I set out to answer these questions by taking a trip to a few of the most popular speakeasies on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side (and one in Midtown).

The most important thing I learned is that speakeasies today are more creative than ever with how they “hide” their bars behind unique storefronts.

UES (Second Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets)

You would have no idea that this kid-friendly ice cream shop is actually housing a secret bar with New York-themed cocktails like “The 2nd Avenue Subway” and “Community Board 8.” An ice cream carton wall in the back of the store is actually a secret door that leads to the bar, but if you want to enter, you’ll have to ask the employee behind the counter to see the “storage room.”

Keys and Heels (Second Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets)

There is really only one word to describe this Upper East Side speakeasy: committed. From outside, the shop seems like a hardware store that I would actually go to if I needed a shoe fixed or a key replaced. But I would be out of luck, because there is no locksmith or shoe repair store behind the storefront, but instead a dimly-lit cocktail lounge. Keys and Heels is so committed to the speakeasy identity that they even set up a fake Instagram account where they post photos of shoes being repaired and keys being crafted. “Get 3 keys cut and we will cut your 4th completely free,” one of their Instagram captions reads.

Sushi Nonaka (Amsterdam between 79th and 80th Streets)

This spot takes speakeasy in a totally different direction. Instead of an underground bar, it’s an underground omakase sushi restaurant that is hidden under a Korean restaurant. If you enter through Korean fried chicken shop Boka and ask for Sushi Nonaka, they’ll take you downstairs to the elegant sushi bar with a secret outdoor seating area.

Nothing Really Matters (50th and Broadway)

The hidden entrance to Nothing Really Matters is located inside of a subway station (near the downtown bound No. 1 train station at 50th and Broadway) making it the most creative (and New York-themed) speakeasy entrance on this list. This spot pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a speakeasy. To be honest, I’m not even sure it qualifies as a speakeasy (does a speakeasy have to be hidden underneath or behind a storefront)? With the loose definition I’ve adopted, this spot makes the cut.

Final Thoughts

What makes a speakeasy a speakeasy is the concept, not the technicalities. Much of the excitement of going to a speakeasy comes from the feeling that you are going to a secret location or somewhere that you shouldn’t be going. And the thrill of actually finding the bar entrance in an otherwise ordinary subway station or unlocking the ice cream carton door is enough to create an excitement that will last the whole night. That is the lure of the speakeasy.