The Country’s Best Speakeasies

During the Prohibition era, speakeasies weren’t simply the hottest clubs in town — they were the only clubs in town, and illegal at that. When the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933 and Americans were free, once again, to catch an alcohol buzz whenever they damn well felt like it, speakeasies lost some regular customers. But today, nearly a century since the booze ban went into effect, these establishments haven’t lost their relevance. Here are some of the hottest ‘secret establishments’ in the U.S. — and while it would be unfair for us to divulge GPS-coordinated directions to their hidden entrances, we’ve provided a few hints to get you started on the right track.

Angel’s Share, NYC

The Big Apple is home to dozens of speakeasies, and Angel’s Share in the East Village is considered by many to be the absolute best. The rules are somewhat strict: patrons must be seated, and groups of five or more are prohibited. So bring a date and enjoy the classy ambiance (including tuxedoed waiters) and first-rate views of Stuyvesant Square.

Getting there: I feel like sushi, don’t you?

What the experts say: “Angel’s Share remains completely unknown to some of its neighbors; that duality is part of its charm. Standing around and groups of four or more are not allowed—but this is really a date place anyway, offering a stellar view of Stuyvesant Square, tuxedoed bartenders and excellent cocktails, including one of the city’s best grasshoppers” — Time Out New York

Wilson & Wilson Private Detective Agency, San Francisco

Bourbon & Branch, one of the Golden Gate City’s most popular speakeasies, isn’t hard to locate — there’s a long line that usually forms outside the bar’s unmarked entrance on the corner of Jones and O’Farrell Streets. But a speakeasy within a speakeasy? Now we’re talkin’. This noir-themed establishment offers an expansive drink menu, which includes several libations inspired by classic detective fiction, as well as a teapot of rum punch.

Getting there: Most detective agencies have frosted windows, right?

What the experts say: “Bartenders have become cooks in their own right, brewing and infusing and stewing and concocting, taking ownership of the drink in ways we never imagined in the vodka-cran age” — S.F. Weekly

Cloak Room, Austin

Incidentally, this speakeasy located in the heart of Texas’ capitol city has been linked to some nefarious political dealings since it opened nearly 40 years ago. But according to the proprietress, Bev Pruitt, politeness come first in her establishment. She’s owned the place for more than 20 decades, but don’t let her gruff exterior fool you — she’s all Southern hospitality as long as you mind your manners.

Getting there: Some dark basements are meant to be explored.

What the experts say: “Beverly Pruitt is a no-nonsense, forthright bartender whose focus revolves less on the technique of mixing drinks and more on the importance of creating an atmosphere that caters to all kinds of clientele. If you’re one of her regulars, you’re welcomed with a warm hello, and your usual poison is quietly placed on a napkin in front of you without a word or request exchanged.” — Austin 360

The Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co., Philadelphia

Named for Benjamin Franklin, Philly’s unofficial patron saint, this subterranean gin mill has been serving customers for going on four years. Originally (under city regulation), the speakeasy only served libations — but once the laws were changed, its proprietors added cheese and charcuterie to the menu.

Getting there: Don’t be fooled by hard-to-open doors — and keep your eyes peeled for a tiny sign.

What the experts say: “For craft cocktails of a certain caliber, Franklin Mortgage’s are among the city’s most affordable. Three exquisite drinks and tip will cost you less than $45. In this drinker’s economy, I don’t know of a sounder investment” — Philadelphia Weekly

Needle & Thread, Seattle

Tavern Law is considered one of the Emerald City’s best watering holes, and the hidden speakeasy located on the premises might have something to do with its popularity. The bartenders will provide you with a refreshing beverage based on the liquor and flavor profile of your choosin, and chances are you’ll be so mesmerized by the stylish decor and quiet atmosphere that your tab will include multiple orders.

Getting there: You won’t get in without a phone reservation, and your cell won’t help you.

What the experts say: “Here, drinks are the sole focus, and the bartender is there to make sure that every single person under his care gets just precisely what they want (or need) to make it through the night. There isn’t even a cocktail menu for the upstairs bar, just a raised eyebrow, a questioning glance and a, ‘So what do you like…’ from the man on the other side of the long oak” — Seattle Weekly

The Patterson House, Nashville

Science is king at this establishment. The proprietors have extensively researched the way that ice complements various spirits, and eight different ice cube shapes/sizes are utilized to ensure that your gin gimlet, old-fashioned or whatever you choose doesn’t taste too watered down. Better yet, there isn’t a drink on the menu that costs more than $11 — but the setting is as classy and intimate as any upscale (read: expensive) cocktail lounge.

Getting there: This establishment is located at the outskirts… er, edges… wait, what’s the word we’re looking for?

What the experts say: “The cocktail list is one of the most innovative in the country, and the signature ice balls are made with twice-filtered water frozen in a limited-released mold made in Japan. Yes, these are people who care inordinately about cocktails” — CNN Travel

The Violet Hour, Chicago

The interior of this Windy City watering hole is instantly striking; crystal chandeliers and dark hardwood floors give the appearance of a ballroom, while bright blue walls and white molding suggest something straight out of Alice in Wonderland. But the drinks speak for themselves — all the classic requests, modified with housemade bitters and simple syrup and mixed to perfection by one of the expert bartenders.

Getting there: A speakeasy in beautiful Wicker Park… what a bright idea!

What the experts say: “A big part of the show is the magic at the bar, where premium liquors combine with housemade syrups, bitters, and eight kinds of twice-filtered ice. Bet you didn’t even know ice came eight different ways” — Complex City Guide

By Brad Nehring