Looking around furtively, you duck down a nondescript alley, looking for the designated spot. There’s a hidden door, indicated only by an umarked buzzer. But you’re prepared: You know the top-secret password. Tingling with anticipation, you push the buzzer, give the proper signal and are granted entry.
So are you a spy going to collect classified documents from a shady source, or a cocktail geek headed to an elegant speakeasy? Lots of bars today make it hard to tell. Here are a few spots around the country with hidden entrances and other covert characteristics where you can feel like a secret agent. And in case these places are too conspicuous, we have a tasty Stoli vodka cocktail you can make at home, courtesy of Midnight Cowboy.
Where better to start than an actual spy-themed bar, almost surely the world’s first? SafeHouse Milwaukee has been open since 1966, when Station Chief Agent OH-OH-7 (AKA founder David J. Baldwin) opened a bar full of secret passageways, false walls and hidden doors. Over the years, the bar’s built up a collection of real espionage and Cold War paraphernalia, including a piece of the Berlin Wall and the actual door of the cell behind which real-life American intelligence operative Werner Juretzko was held after being captured by the KGB and Stasi in East Germany in 1956. The place also recently launched an expansion, opening a Chicago location earlier this year.
New York, New York
There’s a phone booth in the corner of East Village hot dog stand Crif Dogs, but—spoiler alert—it’s not a real phone booth. Pick up the receiver and the secret door slides back revealing PDT (it stands for Please Don’t Tell), among the first and most influential bars in today’s craft-cocktail speakeasy trend. The drinks inside are absolutely incredible: PDT won the very first James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2012 and has consistently been listed among the top drinkeries on Earth since it opened. Just make a reservation! The bar is pretty tiny and often can’t take walk-ins.
WILSON & WILSON PRIVATE DETECTIVE AGENCY
San Francisco, California
If you’re a spy with a meeting too sensitive for even a secret speakeasy that bans cell phones, where do you go? How about a speakeasy-within-a-speakeasy? You’ll need one password to get into Bourbon & Branch, but to reach this extra-special space inside it, you’ll need a second password and the location of the secret door near the bathroom. Wilson & Wilson offers an elevated set of cocktails—you can get a three-course tasting with an aperitif, “main course” and digestif cocktail for $35—and a selection of rare and high-end spirits you can’t get in the larger bar outside.
Los Angeles, California
Built into a Victorian house that’s more than a century old, No Vacancy brings Roaring Twenties elegance (and a bit of its sleaze) to the heart of Hollywood. Walk up to the ostensible Hotel Juniper and you’ll be escorted to one of its tiny rooms, where a lingerie-clad lady will pull the lever the reveals the hidden staircase into the bar. (We won’t reveal how the staircase is hidden, but rest assured it’s unexpected.) The venue within features a beautiful outdoor patio that hosts live music, burlesque performances and even a tightrope act on occasion. Owners (and twin brothers) Mark and Jonnie Houston are pretty much Los Angeles’ secret-speakeasy experts: Five of the 10 bars they run in town feature hidden entrances.
WILLIAMS & GRAHAM
The tiny Williams & Graham bookstore in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood has a suspiciously extensive selection of cocktail books. Pull on the copy of the classic Savoy Cocktail Book to find out why: It opens the secret back shelf/door that gets you into one of America’s finest cocktail bar. No, really: In 2015, Williams & Graham was named the best American cocktail bar at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Owner and head bartender Sean Kenyon curates an extensive selection of spirits of all kinds, along with a constantly changing menu of sophisticated cocktails.
THE PETER KERN LIBRARY
The gorgeous Oliver Hotel in downtown Knoxville is in a 19th-century building built by local bakery magnate Peter Kern, who also served as the city’s mayor from 1890-1892. Kern’s portrait smiles over this cozy library space, which hides behind a sliding section of wall in the hotel’s lobby. There’s an excellent menu of cocktails (printed in vintage books, natch) named for literary characters like Holden Caulfield and Holly Golightly, but here’s a real insider tip: Order a Ramos Gin Fizz. This place makes the best one I’ve ever had.
Sixth Street is today the center of Austin’s hipster nightlife scene, but it used to be a bit shadier. Midnight Cowboy Modeling operated a “massage parlor” on the street for years that shut down after it was busted for prostitution in 2011. Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League bought the building and turned it into a speakeasy bar. Look for an unmarked door, a single red lightbulb and a buzzer labeled Harry Craddock—the London bartender who wrote the famed Savoy Cocktail Book (the same one used to get into Williams & Graham above)—and you’ll gain entrance to this cocktail palace, whose Victorian-brothel decor is a playful hat-tip to the building’s former tenant. Come ready for a big night: The reservations-only bar has a two-drink minimum, and all of its creations are complex, sophisticated and powerful.
The Panty Dropper
by Ryan Erlichman, Midnight Cowboy
• 2 oz. Stoli Vodka
• ½ oz. Lillet Blanc
• ¾ oz. Lemon juice
• ¾ oz. Lavender Syrup∗
• 2 dashes Lemon bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake vigorously and fine-strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and a cherry.
• 1 cup Water
• 2 Tbsp. Dried lavender flowers
• 1 cup Sugar
Add the water and lavender to a small saucepan over low heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the sugar and stir until it dissolves completely. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 hour. Strain and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. (To lengthen shelf life, stir in 1 ounce of Stoli Vodka.)