If you asked us five years ago whether we thought the whole speakeasy revival was going to last, we would have told you heck no. And we would have been dead wrong. Today every major city has not one but often several bars that are hidden behind secret doors, down back alleys, in converted storefronts or within other bars. Since these spots are generally on the small side, the focus can be on the quality of the drinks and the overall experience. And the best of the lot are breaking away from speakeasy clichés: Not all the bartenders have waxed handlebar mustaches, not every drink has 50 ingredients, and they’re better than ever. We can drink to that.
NAUTICAL BY NATURE
ZZ’S CLAM BAR / NEW YORK
Eating while drinking is usually just a good idea, but at ZZ’s Clam Bar it’s a necessity. To taste the fine tiki-inspired cocktails at this jewel box of a spot, you have to make a dinner reservation. When the menu is from the guys behind the restaurants Carbone, Torrisi Italian Specialties and Parm, we’re happy to settle in for a couple of hours. The seafood is smartly prepared, and the cardamom cocktail tastes like something the Buddha would have served had he gone to bartending school.
LAUNDRY ROOM / LAS VEGAS
The whole bigger-is-better formula is deliciously destroyed at this tiny civilized bar within another bar in downtown Las Vegas (which, if you haven’t heard, is the hot new neighborhood to hang and party like a Zappos exec or a casino chef on his night off). There’s no blaring music on the sound system, photography isn’t allowed, and the drinks are textbook renditions of classics from the first golden age of the cocktail. Visit Laundry Room’s Facebook or Yelp page to get the number to make a reservation. If it’s booked solid, have a consolation drink outside at Commonwealth.
THE NOBLE EXPERIMENT / SAN DIEGO
Leave behind the touristy throngs of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter at this delightfully inaccessible bar inside Neighborhood restaurant. To gain access, not only must you text a reservation request in advance (give yourself a week if you’re heading there on a Friday or Saturday night), but you also have to locate the darn entrance (it’s behind that stack of beer kegs by the restroom). Inside you’ll find the cocktail palace of your dreams: White tufted banquettes, a wall of skulls and a crystal chandelier are the dramatic backdrop for some serious mixology. If you don’t know your oleo saccharum from your orgeat syrup, put yourself in the hands of one of the staff and ask for the bartender’s choice.
PUNCH HOUSE / CHICAGO
This subterranean bar from the guys behind Chicago’s revered Longman & Eagle is our kind of kitsch. If you’re going to drink in a basement, you could do worse than this exquisitely rendered version of a 1970s rec-room bar (think wood paneling, an aquarium and a taxidermied trophy fish). Instead of Dad’s kegerator, there are eight punches on draft, from old-school versions to modern variations, including one made with curried pisco. Soak it all up with a braised beef cheek sandwich on house-made challah.
WILLIAMS & GRAHAM / DENVER
The front for this drinking establishment is a tiny faux bookstore, but that’s where the gimmickry stops. The convivial neighborhood bar it hides serves a host of seriously crafted cocktails but without being too serious about it. Case in point: the names of the drinks. There’s the white drank, a cocktail made with silver tequila and white wine, and the rye-based sexual chocolate, made with a dash of chocolaty mole bitters. Like many of the other bars that made our list this year, Williams & Graham also serves excellent food designed to stand up to the full-flavored cocktails. Braised duck potpie and house-made beer nuts spiced with Aleppo pepper and sriracha are our idea of bar food.
DISCO AND A DRINK
HONEYCUT / LOS ANGELES
Not all mixologically inclined cocktail menus are served in monastic quarters by overly serious bartenders in suspenders and professorial facial hair circa 1893. At Honeycut in downtown Los Angeles things get funky in the very best way. Yes, the drinks are well-crafted, but when one of the menu categories is “classy as fuck,” you know the establishment doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unlike many of the other spots on our list, this is not a place to come for a quiet drink. But that’s a good thing at Honeycut. The flashing multicolored checkerboard of a dance floor straight out of Saturday Night Fever and a rotating roster of DJs keep the place hopping. Be warned: You’ll need to walk down an alley to find it, and it’s slammed on weekends. Tuesday is the new Friday, but you already knew that.
MIDNIGHT COWBOY / AUSTIN
Any bar housed in a former massage parlor gets our attention—especially when the name hasn’t changed. (Don’t worry: Everything on the inside has.) Still, there’s something a little brothel-like about being able to book a private booth for two hours, and we like that. We especially like that Midnight Cowboy’s house rules request that patrons keep their voices at a reasonable volume and that they refrain from using their phones. We also like that you need to press a buzzer marked HARRY CRADDOCK to get in. Craddock is the author of The Savoy Cocktail Book, the seminal drinks manual from the 1930s, which every good bartender has committed to memory.
THAI ONE ON
PATPONG ROAD / MIAMI BEACH
On the real Patpong Road in Bangkok some serious Hangover-level debauchery takes place. Here, above Miami Beach’s Khong River House, you can expect a more refined but appropriately raucous experience. The bar serves its signature rum-based laid-ee cocktail in a plastic bag, an homage to the bagged drinks sold on the streets in Southeast Asia.
BIG ON JAPAN
BAR JACKALOPE / LOS ANGELES
You used to have to head to the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku to get your Suntory time on. But now, with more Japanese whiskeys making their way to the States, you can get your fix at Jackalope, a tiny bar within a bar at the back of whiskey-focused Seven Grand. Insider tip: Go earlier in the week to avoid the weekend masses. That way you can focus on the subtle differences between a Hibiki and a Yamazaki.
HALE PELE, PORTLAND
Of all the towns in need of some tropical relief, sun-deprived Portland just may be the most deserving. That plus the local handcrafted ethos go a long way toward explaining the success of Hale Pele. Here the tiki drinks are artisanal (including superfresh juices and top-shelf rum) and the staff wisely limits the high-octane zombie cocktail to two per customer. Book the private Chieftain’s Hut in advance if you have a big party, and settle in for the evening. Soak it all up with bites from the pupu menu, which—this being Portland— includes a kale salad.
LET’S GET LOST
THE MYSTERY ROOM / PHOENIX
The Arizona Biltmore is a grand example of 1920s architecture: The sprawling deco resort looks like a set straight out of Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby. On Sunday nights the hotel resurrects its past (it opened during Prohibition) with the Mystery Room, a tiny secret bar that requires a password for entry. Although it may seem late to the game, the venue is a rare example of a speakeasy-revival bar that was once actually a speakeasy.
THE WRITE STUFF
LOCAL EDITION/SAN FRANCISCO
The perfect pairing of drinking and journalism is celebrated at Local Edition, a subterranean bar (yes, it’s a trend) in the basement of the Hearst Building in the Embarcadero. Vintage typewriters, old newspapers and printing-press components celebrate the power of the printed word, as young tech executives toast this bygone era with 1950s-inspired cocktails such as the brass knuckle, made with Japanese whiskey and spiced blood-orange liqueur.