Speakeasy craze reached fever pitch in New York years ago, but as the trend continues to spread around the world, bars are getting more and more creative with how they disguise their entrances. No longer will a mere unmarked door or password suffice—guests in search of clandestine cocktails now navigate through walk-in coolers, florists’ shops, taco joints and trap doors.
1. An old Smeg refrigerator
Londoners might be familiar with the cheery, yolk-yellow Breakfast Club cafes. But beneath the Breakfast Club’s Spitalfields location lies what they lovingly refer to as “our dirty little secret.” Tell the staff you’re here to see the Mayor, and they’ll likely shepherd you through what appears to be a Smeg refrigerator. The fridge door leads to a stairway, at the bottom of which you’ll find the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town, a cheeky hidden cocktail den complete with a set of rules, loads of feline-inspired decor and one great lineup of drinks. (Side note: anyone named Garfield gets a free beverage, upon showing proof of identity.)
2. A wardrobe
Could there be anything more enchanting than walking through a wardrobe that’s actually a passage straight to midcentury Havana, complete with cigars, dancers and mojitos aplenty. Just like “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” only entering La Descarga is much better than an iced-over Narnia. Enter through a rather spare office, give the desk clerk your name (reservations are definitely recommended), push the hanging clothing aside, and step through the door. If only all closets led to rum and salsa dancing instead of laundry.
To enter New York’s Beauty & Essex, guests first pass through a pawn shop.
3. A Pawn Shop
Wander into this New York pawn shop hawking used guitars and once-loved bling, and you’ll eventually make it inside Beauty & Essex, a dark, swanky gem of a bar that feels worlds away from the unwanted tchotchkes gathering dust on the other side. While the pawn shop fronting the bar is all harsh fluorescent lighting and secondhand curios, Beauty & Essex is a sprawling den of opulence, complete with champagne service in the ladies’ room and Oaxacan Old Fashioneds at the bar.
4. A Taco Restaurant’s Walk-In Cooler
Is a speakeasy really a speakeasy if it’s listed on Yelp? Perhaps the cat’s out of the bag on Jules Basement, but for good reason: an unassuming walk-in cooler door leads one through a set of rubber curtains, down a flight of stairs, and into a sleek, modern lounge space, where you’ll find some of the most innovative cocktails in D.F.
5. A trap door in the floor
San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch is a veritable maze of secrets. There’s the main bar, which already requires its guests to buzz in from the street with a password. Then there’s Bourbon & Branch’s secret Library bar, tucked away behind a trick bookcase. Then, there’s Wilson & Wilson, the extra-secret bar, which is secreted away behind a secret door inside the other secret bar. Then, there’s Russell’s Room, which is extra-extra-secret and hidden behind yet another bookcase. Still following? Good, because while those bars are technically hush-hush, they aren’t real-deal speakeasies—not like the Ipswitch, anyway. The fifth and definitely most secret bar at Bourbon & Branch is the genuine article: it operated as a real-deal basement speakeasy during Prohibition, and it’s only accessible through a trap door in the floor. (It’s also not available to the general public, so don’t go poking around too much.)
The flower and wine shop fronting Floreria Atlantico in Buenos Aires. Image via Floreria Antico.
6. A Flower Shop
At a glance, this neighborhood shop in Buenos Aires appears to offer little more than bright bouquets and bottles of wine. But keep walking past the fragrant stems, through the refrigerator door, and down the stairs, and you’re suddenly in one of B.A.’s hippest underground drinking destinations, courtesy of Aline Vargas, Renato Giovannoni and Julián Diaz. Giovannoni told the New York Times last year that the flower shop storefront was more of an afterthought than a clever disguise: apparently, Floreria Atlantico was replacing a not-so-beloved bar in the neighborhood. “So we decided to do something nice. We said, we’ll put some flowers, spend some money on that, and if nobody buys it, we don’t care.” Luckily, after two years in business, it’s safe to say someone’s buying it.
7. A map… behind a hidden bookcase… in the back of a shop.
It’s fitting that the final entrance to this thrice-hidden bar is a map, because you might actually find yourself in need of one by the time you’re ready to find your way back out onto the street. Speak Low in Shanghai has not one, not two, but three hidden bars, hidden with varying degrees of obscurity. Enter through Ocho, a retail storefront selling spirits books and bar accessories, and scout out the bookcase that’s actually a door to a secret passageway. Once you ascend to the second floor, look for a hallway that seemingly leads to nowhere, and a framed map on the wall. Pressing Shanghai on the map will grant you access to the next and final piece of the Speak Low puzzle, though this hidden whiskey bar is only accessible to a select group of members.
8. A toilet
Of all the fancy vintage refrigerators, boutique flower shops and covert trap doors on this list, Portside Parlour’s former means of entry just might take top honors—at least in the “most unexpected” category. Though the bar has since moved on to permanent digs in Shoreditch, its initial 2013 pop-up caught the attention of revelers for its excellent rum drinks, but also its unusual front door. To access the plush den of leather Chesterfields and aged rums, guests passed through a bathroom in the basement of Off Broadway, where a good flush ensured one’s entry.
A retro Coke machine served as the hidden front door to The Flask. Image via Alberto Caiola.
9. A vintage Coke machine
Step inside Shanghai’s bright, modern sandwich shop The Press, and you’ll likely spot a handsome vintage Coca-Cola machine, the centerpiece of the shop’s decor. Spoiler alert: it isn’t just there to look good. The door opens to reveal The Flask, a dark, cozy den that’s the visual opposite of The Press in nearly every way: all smooth leather surfaces and dim lighting, standing in stark contrast to the slick, contemporary environs of its sister sandwich shop. “Considering that Shanghai has already seen its fair share of hidden speakeasy-themed bars and lounges, we decided to build suspense and break it in an entirely unexpected fashion,” writes Alberto Caiola, who designed the space. He explains that warm, muted, mysterious atmosphere of The Flask was meant to serve as foil to The Press’s bright, lighthearted charm, causing guests to truly feel transported as they moved from one to the other.