In the 1920s and ’30s alcohol was outlawed in the United States, and drinkers were forced into clandestine speakeasies. Purveyors of liquor found endlessly inventive ways to disguise their operations behind seemingly innocuous fronts. And while today Prohibition may be over, the allure of a hidden, exclusive watering hole remains as strong as ever.
10. Fall from Grace – Melbourne, Australia
The giraffe head on the wall seems like a talking point at the quirky State of Grace restaurant in Melbourne, but it’s the bookshelf that promises real intrigue. The secret door opens when diners pull the correct title from the shelf: “Fall from Grace,” of course.
Behind the shelf, winding marble stairs lead to a sumptuous, chandelier-draped bar concealed inside a cavernous cellar. Adorned with gilt-edged mirrors and plush velvet sofas, “Fall from Grace” is a stylish, elegant enclave famed for its superb cocktails and selection of fine wines.
9. Callooh Callay – London, U.K.
Nestled in the terminally hip district of Shoreditch in East London, the offbeat Callooh Callay recalls the fantastical world of C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia chronicles, with a “magical” wardrobe that opens onto a different realm. What awaits beyond its doors?
Doused in ultra-violet light, the Callooh Callay backroom is a psychedelic wonderland of eclectic furnishings: metal palm trees, a gramophone, a sofa fashioned from a bathtub, and retro glass tables that could have come from a 1960s sci-fi movie. Opened in 2008, the bar was awarded “Best Cocktail Menu in the World” at the Tales of the Cocktail awards.
8. The Blind Rabbit – Anaheim, U.S.
Alice found adventures in Wonderland when she followed a rabbit. Perhaps this was the inspiration for “The Blind Rabbit,” a secret cocktail bar hidden in the Anaheim Packing District. A small, black statuette of a rabbit marks the spot where a shelf of Japanese sake kegs swings open to a hidden chamber.
Exuding a classic speakeasy vibe, the brick-lined interior is cozy, romantic and dimly lit. And, against a backdrop of live piano music, it’s not hard to imagine oneself traveling back in time to the days of Prohibition.
7. The Noble Experiment – San Diego, U.S.
Next to the restrooms in a trendy San Diego gastropub called “Neighborhood” a stack of metal beer kegs conceals the entrance to “The Noble Experiment” – a term U.S. congress once used to describe Prohibition. The kegs swing inwards with a firm push to the right, and what lies beyond is astonishing.
Dark, decadent and highly exclusive, the Noble Experiment greets its patrons with a wall of brass skulls that would have delighted an Aztec emperor. Crystal chandeliers drip from ceilings adorned with romantic art, while the bar, illuminated and framed by marble, serves a superb range of cocktails.
6. Please Don’t Tell – New York City, U.S.
A grungy East Village hot dog eatery is the unlikely hideaway for one of New York’s most famous speakeasies, the aptly named “Please Don’t Tell.” Access to the bar is via an antique telephone booth at the back of the restaurant; just dial and wait for the secret door to open.
Dark and moody, the way a speakeasy should be, “Please Don’t Tell” features a glimmering black-lit bar and a low wooden ceiling. Perfect for a cozy evening retreat, the establishment is actually now something of an open secret: in 2011 it was named “Best Bar in the World” by Drinks International.
5. Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town – London, U.K.
The Breakfast Club café in Spitalfields is the epitome of East London cool, but inform the staff that you’re “here to see the Mayor” and you’ll get much more than a morning coffee. Yes, with those special words you’ll be directed to the retro fridge in the corner, which of course is not a fridge at all…
The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town is stylish and casual, and it has a sense of humor, too. Menus provide a list of quirky rules for the patrons, including “The town is Scaredy Cat Town, not Cool Cats Town, the Mayor demands the highest standards of self-deprecation.”
4. The Blind Barber – New York City, U.S.
The Blind Barber in New York City’s East Village is not just a trendy local hairdressers where hipsters go to get their beards trimmed. Beyond the parlor chairs and grooming utensils, a battered green door marks the entrance to a backroom known as “Grandpa’s Den.”
Decked out in checkered floors and with black-and-white photos on the walls, the low-key backroom is exactly the sort of place where Grandpa might hide out. Don’t be fooled by its modest airs, however; in addition to old classics, The Blind Barber serves a youthful array of racy cocktails.
3. The King of Ladies Man – London, U.K.
The Breakfast Club café in Battersea, southwest London, is a meticulously designed retro breakfast joint complete with aquamarine décor and lanoline table-tops. Step into the wood-paneled laundromat out back, however, and a sliding door opens onto a spicier – if no less retro – locale.
The spirit of the ’70s lives on in the King of Ladies Man, a disarmingly kitsch speakeasy draped in gold curtains. Drenched in amber backlights, the bar features a display of vintage Playboy magazines, a humorous nod to ladies’ men everywhere.
2. The Back Room – New York City, U.S.
A tatty sign marks the entrance to the Lower East Side Toy Company in New York, but beyond this inconspicuous metal gate lies one of the city’s most notorious speakeasies. A legend awaits.
Once the haunt of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano, the back room is infamous as one of only two surviving speakeasies in New York. And while today it may have lost its gangsters, it certainly hasn’t shed any of its elegance: plush Victorian loungers, fine carpets and wooden fixtures speak only of class.
1. The Flask – Shanghai, China
Don’t be fooled by the unassuming minimalist décor of The Press, a bright and trendy sandwich bar in Shanghai. In the corner of the room stands an antique Coca-Cola vending machine, but it doesn’t stock Coke. Beyond its heavy metal door lies a mysterious new world.
Designed by Alberto Caiola, the dark, moody but singularly tasteful interior of the Flask is the place to quietly sip whisky and forget about the world outside. Gray-black tones and angular fixtures lend it a contemporary edge, while quirky antiques offer a nod to the cozy speakeasies of the past.