On May 11, 2022, the Woo Woo opened in Midtown Manhattan. Billed as a speakeasy that evokes 1980s New York City, when Times Square wasn’t filled with the M&M’s Store, Olive Garden, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but instead was a place of grit and sex shops, the Woo Woo lies underneath a pub, through an adults-only sex shop, and is accessed by giving a password at the door. Or by simply making a reservation online.
Because what’s a modern-day speakeasy if you can’t read about it in the press, watch people post reaction videos to it on Instagram and TikTok, easily find the password online, or simply make a Resy? May 11, 2022 should also be known as the date when the rebirth of the early aughts speakeasy trend in NYC officially jumped the shark.
Speakeasies have a rich history in the United States. Born out of necessity thanks to Prohibition, the speakeasy gained its name due to how low one had to speak inside so as to not be caught by law enforcement. To keep out authorities, a password was due at the door. As Prohibition trudged on through the 1920s, these establishments became the first in the U.S. to allow men and women to drink together (prior to Prohibition, legal saloons served alcohol only to men) and entertainment was added.
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At the height of Prohibition, the majority of these establishments weren’t accessed through secret doors — having a full band and other entertainers searching for hidden entryways wouldn’t have been the easiest — but instead were kept under wraps through another grand American tradition: bribes. Paying off the cops to look the other way became standard practice, and, for the most part, these speakeasies operated pretty much out in the open. Some such clubs and bars, like NYC’s Stork Club or Chumley’s, even became famous, and lots of people were still able to have a tipple, despite the federal government prohibiting the sale of alcohol. (It’s worth noting that this racket also lined the pockets of many people involved in organized crime, and that while we romanticize the idea of the speakeasy today, there was a lot of violence connected to them as well.)
In 1933, Prohibition thankfully ended, and speakeasies pretty much stopped being a thing in the United States. Fast forward to 1993 and a cocktail bar opens behind an unmarked door inside a sushi restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan. The venue was Angel’s Share and it was a bar that drew its inspiration, technique, and aesthetics from the rich history of Japanese bartending over the last century. Unlike the U.S., Japan never experienced Prohibition, and it’s there that much of the cocktail culture initially created stateside came from.
When Angel’s Share first opened, owner Tony Yoshida had no interest in creating a speakeasy, and wanted instead to create a space that was different from the loud clubs all over New York City that he believed had been influenced by the movie “Cocktail.” As he shared in a recent New York Times article, Yoshida wanted to build a bar in ”the Japanese bar model of precision and decorum.” Jazz, yes. Loud music, no. Also no groups larger than four and sharply dressed bartenders. It was a bar meant to give you the space to consider the drinks and the company in front of you.
Milk & Honey was the next faux speakeasy of the era, opening on Dec. 31, 1999. Heavily influenced by Angel’s Share, the late Sasha Petraske built a bar with no sign, no cocktail menu, and no published telephone number — just a place that was meant to inspire its guests to think about consuming cocktails in a different way. Similarly reacting to what was happening in the New York City bar scene at the time, Petraske had initially set out to create the perfect cafe. That evolved into a bar, which is still to this day considered to be the establishment that started the craft cocktail scene across the U.S.
A few years later, in 2006, the first actual speakeasy-style bar, Bourbon & Branch, opened in San Francisco. The bar had some true bonafides the other two did not, namely that it operated in a space that once was a real speakeasy, which definitely aided it in pitching press. Its owners, Doug Dalton, Dahi Donnelly, and Brian Sheehy, admitted to having studied Milk & Honey religiously before opening, and the drinks were killer. It also created the same backlash as the bar that influenced it, pissing off many patrons who couldn’t get in.
Then finally, in 2007, came the bar that is seen by many to have really kicked off the early aughts speakeasy craze: Please Don’t Tell, known by most as PDT. But it, too, was never intended to be a speakeasy. When bartender Jim Meehan was approached by Chris Antista and Brian Shebairo to open a bar inside their East Village hot dog stand Crif Dogs, the reason they had you enter through a phone booth wasn’t to add to the allure, which it certainly did, but because if they had a separate entrance, they would have had to apply for a second liquor license.
As Meehan told Gothamist in 2011, “I would say we were like a tipping point: all these places existed, [Milk & Honey, Angel’s Share, Little Branch, Employees Only] and we connected the dots. When PDT opened, everyone thought, ‘Holy shit, this is a trend.’ And I feel like we were one of the places that established it as a trend — but we didn’t pioneer it.” But he still resisted the label: “When we opened, everyone said, ‘This is a speakeasy.’ As a cocktail historian, I said, ‘We’re absolutely not a speakeasy.’ Speakeasies were illegal bars that served bootlegged or adulterated hooch, they didn’t’ serve culinary cocktails. …After a million people called us a ‘speakeasy’ I conceded, ‘Alright, we’re a speakeasy, but we’re a modern speakeasy.’” It was a massive success.
And then the backlash began. Bars across the country and even across the world opened speakeasies. They became gimmicks. The quality of the drinks suffered, and lots of great bartenders realized you didn’t need to open a speakeasy anymore to have your drinks taken seriously. Pretty soon all of the great bars on the World’s 50 Best Bars list were just that — great bars. No password, secret phone number, or unmarked door needed.
But now the speakeasy is back, with a vengeance. A quick Google search for speakeasy bars in NYC returns a plethora of similar-sounding headlines:
What’s responsible for the recent speakeasy boom is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the reality of a post-Covid world trying to recreate the Roaring Twenties, that time period we experienced after the world’s last major pandemic. Maybe it’s because we’ve been cooped up in our houses for over two years and “secret” bars appeal to our sense of discovery. Or maybe it’s TikTok’s fault.
Thanks to social media, the entire speakeasy “experience” can be documented and shared with followers. As a result, would-be bar owners know they will at least get a bit of buzz and press when they first launch. All they need to do is create some sort of elaborate entrance to hide their bar behind, and there will reliably be a wait to get in for at least a few months. All of which wouldn’t be so bad if the drinks were ultimately good. But very often they are not.
And that’s where our current speakeasy craze diverges hard from the path. While the speakeasies of the early aughts existed precisely because their owners wanted you to take the drinks seriously, now it’s all about the #vibes they sought to escape back then. As long as you can snap a cool photo, or grab a great video, no one really cares if the drinks taste good. And isn’t that a shame.
Next week, another press release about a new speakeasy opening in yet another “gritty” or strange location will slide across the desk of this writer and countless others. It will be filled with flowery language about the secrecy and exclusivity of the new venue. Images of the entrance will be shared along with a who’s who list of influencers who have already checked out the spot. The cocktails and the bartender behind them, however, will never be mentioned. The question is, will we continue to care?