When, at the beginning of the 20th century, the States saw social issues such as alcoholism and gambling addiction rising dramatically throughout all the strata of society, the U.S. Senate decided to pass a constitutional ban on alcohol. Anything from sales to production and transportation of alcohol became illegal within the borders of 39 out of 40 American states – Maryland being the only exception. What is known as Prohibition lasted from 1920 until 1933.
As you can imagine, many citizens were reluctant to give up their booze, and it was not long before all around the country clandestine establishments selling alcoholic beverages started to pop up like mushrooms. Enter the speakeasies.
Whether they were hidden in basements or hosted in private apartments, catering to the fancy gentlemen or blue collars, speakeasies became a ‘subterranean world’ whose existence became as obvious as they were hard to tackle. Fueled by organised crime who saw a brand-new profitable way to make some extra money, for each speakeasy that closed another two would soon open. After Prohibition came to its end speakeasies made no more sense, and most of them shut down.
Nowadays, the speakeasy culture has seen a revival, but their contemporary versions are far from being some den of crime and debauchery; indeed, as such bars are described as having a retro, often exclusive-ish vibe serving crafted cocktails. Tucked away, but nevertheless well-known, speakeasies often still feature a blank, metal door and a bell for you to ring to get in – and let’s be honest, we’re not going to end up in a police roundup or meet Al Capone, but we do love participating in such little games.
Looking forward to foregoing flavourless cocktails? Put on your stockings, rouge your cheeks, and check out our top 10 selection of speakeasies spotted by our locals. Five in the Old World, the other half in the New one – if you happen to be around, make sure you don’t miss them.
1. 1930 (Milan)
Probably the ‘speakeasiest’ among the listed ones, 1930 is the only, real speakeasy in Milan. The official address is unknown (or better yet, untold) – we just know it’s hidden in an anonymous Chinese bar. To be one of the regulars you will have to convince one of the two guys running the place (where to find them? Not telling you, *hint: browse the internet*) that you’re fit for the ‘speakeasy way of life’. Only then you’ll receive a card, with a telephone number. In that case, try to reserve a table: if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get the chance to try their cocktails – for connoisseurs only.
Knee High Stocking Co., as every speakeasy worthy of the name, features an unassuming door and a bell at the entrance. You might need to ask for the help of its friendly staff to get through their list – as it’s pages and pages long. Also, make sure to ask for their seasonal specialities – they change quite often. If you have the chance, sit at the bar: staring at the bartenders while they mix and set cocktails on fire is as catalysing as it is fun.
Once a typical after-party bar with cheap drinks, after a complete refurbishment Parovoz has become one of the best cocktail bars in Kiev. Taking up the ground floor of an old cinema, ‘Locomotive’ (that’s what parovoz stands for in Ukrainian) is a speakeasy not in terms of its location, but rather in its passionate approach to alcohol: some of the most well-respected bartenders of the Ukrainian capital work here. As a plus, there’s also a food menu – apparently as praiseworthy as their cocktails.
Enter Cole’s, a diner in Downtown LA dating back to 1908. Then proceed into its backyard, open the door in front of you and hop back in time: the crew of The Varnish will welcome you dressed in 1930’s fashion. Also, this tiny, dim-lit bar features live jazz and blues performances from Sunday to Tuesday. Needless to say, the cocktails are impeccable – pick one from the list, or again just tell one of the mixologists to fix one for you, based on your preference and taste.
Lekka is renowned in Athens for being home to quite a number of bars. One of them is hosted in a basement and cannot be spotted from the street. We’re talking about Speakeasy. Unlike a few others previously mentioned, you don’t need a membership card, nor is the address kept secret. Search for it, just ring the bell and they’ll buzz you in. Good music, nice crowd, old-school properly fixed cocktails, Speakeasy is just the right spot both for a night out with friends or for a date.
Say Prohibition, say Al Capone, therefore say Chicago too: is there any other place more paradigmatic than the Windy City to represent the era? To reach Untitled you’ll have to wander around a bit, it’s not easy to find, but once you’re in you won’t regret it. On Thursdays, the dimly-lit bar room hosts 1930’s-throwback variety performances of contortionists and dancers, while other nights alternate music events and casino nights. Feather in its cap: their whiskey selection – more than three-hundred.
Once you’ve rang the bell on your left, a doorman will ask you in Italian what you’re searching for. Don’t let him catch you unprepared, or there’s not going to be any chance you’ll put foot in The Mad Dog: to enter, you need to know their weekly password (to obtain it, reply to the question on their website). The bar perfectly fits the enigmatic and aloof atmosphere of Turin: elegantly furnished and well-supplied with rare spirits, The Mad Dog is the ideal spot to visit on Sundays – when it hosts a jazz fusion DJ set.
Named in honor of the largest illegal alcohol ring in America, you’ll find The Franklin behind an unassuming black doorway. The whole place is a celebration of the bygone splendours and glories. Marble tables and leather booths make for a sleek yet not ostentatious setting, where the friendly staff will immediately put you at ease. Any cocktail you might go for, from the classic to the more experimental ones, will be the right choice.
An Art Deco interior for one of Krakow’s hidden gems, tucked away in the courtyard of an historic building of the Polish city. Mercy Brown’s bartenders aim at perfection by mixing imported and Polish spirits, managing to give their crafted cocktail a cosmopolitan yet local twist. From cabaret to guest mixologists nights, the events hosted in the bar are numerous – check their page to discover what’s coming soon.
10. Backbar (Boston)
We’re closing the list with a place recommended by one of our Boston Spotters – who doesn’t want us to call it a speakeasy. Of the well-known characteristics of a speakeasy, Backbar is indeed hidden in an alley, and there’s a metal door that might seem to require a password for you to go beyond. On the other hand, not so much of a speakeasy is the fact that it serves ramen (a delicious one) and its aesthetics and booze list quite differ from what you would expect from a standard speakeasy. Fair point, more than a ‘proper’ speakeasy it’s more of a speakeasy-ish bar. But hey, whatever! It just seemed like a cool place that should not be left out.