Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Today we are so obsessed with looking in the rear view mirror that we forget to check the road ahead. We live in a state of constant fear of what will be and what might go wrong. We think optimism is for idiots and believe we live in the most dangerous and difficult time in recent history. It’s simply not true.
Exactly one hundred years ago, the early twentieth century was a roller-coaster ride for Americans. First up they had to deal with segregation and the Jim Crow laws, followed swiftly by a small matter known as World War One. The mood recovered a bit with The Jazz Age, but they soon paid for all the fun when Prohibition took hold, followed of course, by The Wall Street Crash and then The Great Depression. All this in the space of twenty years. And you think you live in turbulent times?
Our love affair for all things lost extends to, and even enthusiastically embraces, America’s more embarrassing history, including Prohibition. A century on, it has become distinctly fashionable to reminisce about the bad old days. Our contemporary lexicon, particularly in hip bars and restaurants, celebrates the words ‘speakeasy’ ‘dive bar’ ‘bootleg’ and ‘moonshine’ as if we yearn for the restraints that come with good old government intervention. We’re a contrarian bunch. Today, our liberal society reminisces openly about an illiberal one. We tingle with excitement at the thought of historic austerity whilst passionately despising the contemporary version. We love the idea of discipline as long as it doesn’t actually include us. And we simply relish the thought of being the outlaw, as long as we’re warm and secure within the high walls of make believe. We are little more than naughty school children playing at being grown up.
Speakeasy culture has an obvious and innate post apocalyptic appeal. Speakeasies are illicit, associated with local gangsters and best of all, hidden away behind secret doors, guarded by doormen armed with passwords and unlicensed pistols. By their very nature these places are the antithesis of commercialism. They exist hidden from the mainstream, anonymous and unsigned, with restricted access only for those ‘in the know’. What’s not to love?
And wasn’t hardship so gloriously photogenic back then? Long lines of the tweed-capped and the broken. Toilworn women with thousand yard stares clutching grubby faced children in oversized hand-me-downs. Of course, these ghosts of the past free us from the stench, the relentless belly ache of hunger, the terrible fear for the survival of our children and the heartache of watching our starving parents grow sick. Over time, all this pain and suffering has been gently distilled, like moonshine itself, from an ugly, pestilent reality into a palatable aperitif. The Great Depression was too long ago, and we are far too comfortable for there to be any hope of empathy. The best we can do is to fake sympathy. How terribly those poor people suffered, we cry. But boy, did they look cool!
Today’s speakeasies are, thankfully, a far cry from the original but it’s no coincidence their siren call, the allure of the illicit and the inaccessible was revived immediately after the recent financial calamity. What better way to romanticize the current crisis whilst at the same time harnessing it for good, old fashioned commercial profit.
Here are a few of our coolest New York drinking hideaways:
The Back Room can be found at the end of a passage behind a gate that reads ‘The Lower East Side Toy Company’. The scruffy entrance door simply reads ‘Deliveries Only’. Their more exclusive VIP room is hidden behind a fake bookshelf where cocktails are served in tea-cups and beer bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.
Apotheke is dressed up like an old European apothecary complete with vials and features plenty of absinthe on the cocktail list along with ingredients picked from their rooftop garden.
PDT (Please Don’t Tell) is, alas, a secret no more. Famously entered via an old phone booth (from where you have to call to give the password) it sits behind Crif’s Hot Dog shop so you can enjoy a cocktail with your chili dog.
Employees Only, a noisy little joint tucked away in the West Village has a fake Psychic shopfront complete with neon sign and fake psychic in the window (aren’t they all?) Famous for two things: late night burlesque shows on Sundays, and the fact that all its bar staff have an Employees Only tattoo. That’s loyalty for you.
Bathtub Gin is hidden inside a Chelsea coffee shop. A red light on a nondescript door is the only hint of something ‘illicit’ inside. And yes an antique bathtub is the centre-piece.
The Blind Barber is, as it suggests, a barbershop by day, but at night it magically transforms into a dimly lit hipster cocktail lounge.