The Return of the Speakeasy

By Tanner Cormier

Speak easy, gentlemen and kindly women. Specialty cocktails and candle light await you, behind the red door once more.

The typical barroom bottle slinger is safe no longer; a renewed focus on the art of making solid cocktails, classic or novel, has given rise to the mixologist. Only natural, then, that the bar owners look for inspiration to the original creators of the cocktail: the Prohibition-era hidden speakeasy that sprang into existence in reaction to the demand for the illegal liquids America so loved. Modern speakeasies exist out of style rather than necessity, it’s true, but the type of style they offer comes with equal attention paid to the substance in question. Think a good bar is hard to find? You can say that again.

The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, London

Nestled like a boozy golden goose egg beneath The Breakfast Club, an ’80s-themed breakfast joint, the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is the least serious of the secret speakeasies on this list, and the management like it that way. Thought of as The Breakfast Club’s dirty little secret, to enter, you must first visit TBC in Spitalfields, just west of London’s hip Brick Lane, and ask for — who else? — the Mayor. From there, just a quick step through a 1950s SMEG fridge and you’ll find yourself in a Lynchian cabin straight out of Twin Peaks — a knowing air of kitsch combines with a warm and welcoming atmosphere to excellent, and delightfully surreal, effect.

Sip: Rosie & Gin, a fan favorite, brings together Bombay Sapphire gin with fresh rosemary, lime and pineapple in a woodsy and aromatic balance of sharp and sweet.

Cold Tea, Toronto

Perhaps the odd man out here, Cold Tea was not truly conceived of as a speakeasy. The bar is, in name and spirit, a nod to the after-hours tradition of serving beer in tea kettles, thought to have originated in Toronto’s own Chinatown. A more inclusive riff on the speakeasy theme, Cold Tea won’t take reservations but you’ll need to know where to find it; hidden in the middle of Toronto’s Kensington Market, the bar can only be accessed through a knock-to-open alleyway entrance or at the end of a row of slightly sketchy vendors that share the building. Inside, the bar is minimalist and cool, all cement walls and aged wood façade, and you’ll be greeted by a woman selling authentic, handmade pork buns. A roster of local DJs provides a danceable soundtrack for a crowd that frequently spills out onto the hidden courtyard patio (one of Toronto’s best), done up schoolyard style with long communal tables and graffiti.

Sip: Making a point of working with seasonal ingredients, Cold Tea recently featured the Blue Beard, a concoction of Amaro Nonino, spiced rum, muddled blue plums and house-made black pepper and clove syrup.

Please Don’t Tell, New York City

Photo courtesy:  star5112 on Flickr Shh…there’s this place we know in the East Village that makes some of the best cocktails in Manhattan, and that’s saying something. But you didn’t hear it from us. Hearkening back to Prohibition-style speakeasies, the best on this list, Please Don’t Tell (PDT to those in the know), requires a reservation to get in. Easy enough if you know where to do it; though they’ll take your name via regular phone call, point of access is a phone booth in an unassuming gourmet hot dog shop. Ring the hostess and you’re in. Minus the knowing sense of fun of other such bars — PDT takes itself a little seriously — the dramatic entrance is nonetheless effective in setting the tone. And whether you’re put off by the forced exclusivity or not, the taxidermy-aided atmosphere and experimental seasonal cocktails prepared with deadly precision and know-how will win you over.

Sip: If ever there was a timely cocktail, it’d be PDT’s signature maple syrup and bacon–infused Old Fashioned. A boozy mash-up of Mad Men and that weird, pork-obsessed section of the internet.

Big in Japan, Montreal

Photo courtesy of Dominique Lafond Without doing the right research, you might find yourself mighty confused, standing with your date in the midst of a busy noodle shop. The moniker applies, without much distinction, to two establishments under common ownership. And the bar you seek does not, in fact, have a sign at all; it lies behind a banged-up red door at street level in Montreal’s arty Plateau neighborhood. When owner Andre Nguyen found the space, the empty vestiges of a Portuguese dive, he immediately had the feeling of being in a David Lynch film — a Blue Velvet type joint with palpably story-line walls. Big in Japan preserves that ambiance while turning up the noir: the bar is lit exclusively by candlelight while a large, curved bar serves as a focal point for the booth-lined room. The bar is eerily — and beautifully — cinematic looking, patrons hunched over talking in hushed voices, flame-lit faces aglow. Like the bar in The Shining, but haunted by only the best spirits.

Sip: Big in Japan doesn’t lay claim to any originals but stocks a solid list of sakes and Japanese whiskey and a team of knowledgeable bartenders who’ll suggest or prepare any classic ’tail with expertise.

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