Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Speakeasies Redux

an excerpt from a 2009 nytimes article on speakeasies,
Bar? What Bar?, By WILLIAM GRIMESON, a nondescript block in Williamsburg, not far from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a new bar and restaurant called Rye opened last week. Try to find it.
There’s no sign out front. The facade, an artfully casual assemblage of old wooden slats, gives the place a boarded-up, abandoned look. It does have a street number, painted discreetly on a glass panel above the front doors, but that’s it. Like a suspect in a lineup, it seems to shrink back when observed.
There are a lot of bars like this right now. They can be found all over the United States, skulking in the shadows. Obtrusively furtive, they represent one of the strangest exercises in nostalgia ever to grip the public, an infatuation with the good old days of Prohibition.
Their name is legion: the Varnish in Los Angeles; Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco; Speakeasy in Cleveland; the Violet Hour in Chicago; Manifesto in Kansas City, Mo.; Tavern Law in Seattle (scheduled to open later this month). Everywhere, it seems, fancy cocktails are being shaken in murky surroundings.
New York has fallen hard for this fad. Sasha Petraske, the cocktail artist behind Milk & Honey, has just opened Dutch Kills on a bleak commercial strip in Long Island City, Queens. A small sign that says “BAR” is the only tip-off to its existence.
At the Hideout, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, aspiring customers ring the bell at a forbidding-looking garage door and then stand there as a pair of eyes scrutinize them through a 1920s-style peephole.
The ultimate in speakeasy mystification takes place at PDT (Please Don’t Tell) on St. Marks Place in the East Village. Patrons have to enter through Crif Dogs, the hip hot dog place, then step into a phone booth and identify themselves by speaking into the receiver. A buzzer opens a secret door, revealing a strange, twilight world where artisanal cocktails are consumed under the watchful eyes of a stuffed jackelope and raccoon, and a bear wearing a bowler hat.
“Speakeasy is a funny term, since the business is legal,” said Eric Alperin, a partner and head bartender at the Varnish. “What people are referring to is the allure, almost like an opium den.”
Brian Sheehy, an owner of Bourbon & Branch, agreed. “People have an affection for this period of American history, and they want the mystery,” he said. To enhance the backroom ambience, Bourbon & Branch assigns customers a password, to be spoken into an intercom, when they make a reservation. Once inside the bar, customers are expected to abide by house rules. “Speak easy,” is one of them, enforced by bartenders when necessary.
Password or no password, deluxe or down-low, all these bars have something in common. None of them really resemble an actual speakeasy from the 1920s, although Bourbon & Branch, oddly enough, sits on top of one, reached through a trap door leading to the basement.
A little history, please.
Prohibition, which took effect in January 1920 and finally ended in December 1933, was the worst cocktail era in the history of the United States, for obvious reasons. Half the liquor was homemade or adulterated, forcing the great classic drinks of the early 20th century to exit the stage. In their places appeared cocktails designed to mask poor ingredients, like rye and ginger ale, or the Alexander, a repellent mixture of gin, crème de cacao and cream.
“The basic raw materials then available, and I use the term raw advisedly, made it imperative that they be polished or doctored or decorated,” Frank Shay wrote in a 1934 Esquire article bidding farewell to the Great Experiment. “Also it was essential that their rougher edges be smoothed down in order that they might pass to their true goal without too great distress to the drinker.”

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