A decade ago, speakeasies were all the rage. Then these riffs on Prohibition-era cocktail lounges (with unmarked doors and passcodes for entry) practically disappeared. Some remained open—like The Blind Barber and Please Don’t Tell, both in New York City—but others quickly shuttered.
Recent bar openings flaunt a speakeasy theme again—but with a new twist. They are showy and designed to impress but also feature layers that aren’t always visible the minute you walk in.
“Modern speakeasies, as I call them, often have a kitschy entrance (à la Please Don’t Tell) such as a beer-cooler door (Noble Experiment in San Diego), a bookcase (Tales & Spirits in Amsterdam), or a beer cooler (Hanky Panky in Mexico City),” explains Jim Meehan, owner of Please Don’t Tell, which also has a location at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. “People go out for the story to tell the following morning, and many of these places provide a level of intrigue to entertain colleagues around the water cooler.”
Last weekend’s opening of The Barbershop at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas is one example. With mismatched furnishings and an authentic 1800s Brunswick bar from Kentucky, “we avoided that new cool feeling and went with a warm, vintage, homey, lived-in feel,” says Clique Hospitality co-owner Jason ‘JRoc’ Craig (with Ryan Labbe), which operates the bar.
“We had to think about what the customer needs here and so we created an old-school grooming parlor, hangout and speakeasy-style experience where guests can get their hair shaved during the day and, at night behind a non-descript door, you’ll find a curated line-up of musical programming.” One reason the duo chose the Cosmopolitan is that speakeasy-style venues were already there, including Ghost Donkey, Secret Pizza and The Study.
It’s that element of surprise—which doesn’t have to be a classic barbershop or unmarked door in an alley—that defines today’s speakeasies, says Mark Houston, who, along with his twin brother Jonnie, opened On the Record at Park MGM in Las Vegas in late December. They wanted to shy away from the classic barbershop model or 1920s-décor but still transport patrons to a different place. That yearning resulted in a music theme with karaoke rooms, main room, living room, patio and a vinyl parlor.
“Jonnie and I, we’re not traditional. We’re not going to have a little peephole and ‘Tell me the password,’” says Houston, who feels a speakeasy’s defined by “the prospect of walking through a door that really gets your heart pumping.
“It’s important to keep it fresh. It doesn’t have to be the old-school way,” he says. “Speakeasies have been around for 100 years. Many people are fascinated with what goes on behind closed doors. Being creative and playful is one aspect of it,” says Houston about this bar-within-a-bar concept. “It shouldn’t be the same experience in front. It should be a different layer.”
Opening Raised by Wolves within a Westfield shopping center in La Jolla last April was an experience Jesse Peterson could not have prepared for. Growing up in San Diego, she witnessed the rise and fall of malls—then their resurgence as a lifestyle center. “It’s a social experience now. It’s not ‘I have to go to the mall to buy my grandma a present,’ it’s ‘I’m going to meet the girls for a drink and then we’re going to go to dinner,” she says.
When customers arrive to the bottle shop in front, “there’s a minute where people are looking around to see where the bar is,” Peterson says. “The element of surprise is still there.” The bar, opening at 4:00 p.m., is very glam and elegant, with tile flooring, gold barstools, a tiered water-fountain sculpture behind the bar, and a rotunda ceiling.
“Everyone is doing it so differently,” she says about operating a speakeasy: “You can do it old ‘Gatsby style’ with marble floors and brass but you can do it behind a door and people still love it.”
Celeb clientele—particularly in star-studded cities like Vegas—love the speakeasy concept’s built-in privacy. “Having a hidden room behind an actual venue provides a safe place for them,” says Houston.
Décor aside, what also defines a modern speakeasy is often a menu of classic cocktails, hearkening back to Prohibition era. But for some, like the Houston brothers, this is yet another opportunity to surprise people. The drinks menu at On the Record was created with music in mind. “The bartenders thought about a song and what that song would taste like,” says Houston. “Music sets the tone of our happy place.”
Classic cocktails with minor tweaks were served at Raised by Wolves when it opened and still are today. “Without the original speakeasy, and that kind of culture that existed, we wouldn’t be doing what we are,” says Peterson, “such as a riff on a Tiki cocktail or a Jungle Bird.” The latest cocktail menu branches out slightly into “really cool, bolder flavors,” she says.
At the Barbershop, anything goes, including whiskey or beer on tap, with an intentional effort to separate from the classic craft-cocktail scene. “It’s a straight-up saloon,” says Labbe, “for lack of a better term.”
The operators behind these speakeasies are speaking at this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show! Don’t miss Jim Meehan’s incredible keynote, Erick Castro’s (Raised by Wolves) informative industry panel “Profits Meet Practicality,” or “Grand Concept & Design Creation” with Jason ‘JROC’ Craig, Ryan Labbe and David Manica. Download the Nightclub & Bar Show mobile app add these to your schedule now!