10 great places to slip into a modern speakeasy

ByUSA Today
December 8, 2008, 11:48 AM

— -- Cheers! Raise a glass for the 75th anniversary of Repeal Day, which commemorates Dec. 5, 1933, the day the 18th Amendment was repealed, ending Prohibition. Derek Brown, ambassador to the Museum of the American Cocktail (museumoftheamericancocktail.org), shares his list of great speakeasies with Kelly DiNardo for USA TODAY.

PDT New York City

Historically, speakeasies were illegal operations — the owners were avoiding taxes, serving illegal immigrants or pouring cocktails during Prohibition. So mum was the word, and secrecy still prevails at many of today's speakeasies. At PDT in the East Village, patrons enter through a phone booth in an adjoining hot-dog shop. "You have to go through some effort to get in there," Brown says. "Once you do, the cocktails are outstanding. They have cocktails you would find pre-Prohibition, as well as ones they've created themselves." 212-614-0386

The Velvet Tango Room Cleveland

"They research their drinks and try and bring you back to another era of cocktails," Brown says. "They even have a glass for almost every drink. It's similar to how there's a Burgundy glass, a Champagne glass and port glass for wine. It's the same thing with cocktails. You can have different glasses to emphasize different cocktails." 216-241-8869; velvettangoroom.com

The Swizzle Stick BarNew Orleans

The bar at Café Adelaide "is not a speakeasy in the traditional sense," Brown says. "They do have these terrific, artisanal cocktails." Hard to overlook among the surroundings: a giant block of ice in the middle of the room. "Most bars use regular ice. It's like a chef cooking with Sterno. Bartenders blend and mix by chilling things down with ice. Being able to control that and having the proper ice is very important. Speakeasies tend to pay attention to those details." 504-595-3305; cafeadelaide.com

Bourbon & Branch San Francisco

The décor is one factor that really differentiates many of today's speakeasies from other bars. "Historically, they weren't all that beautiful and elegant, but there's an emphasis on that now," Brown says. Besides great cocktails, Bourbon & Branch has "a handsome environment. … It's masculine and elegant." 415-346-1735; bourbonandbranch.com

PXAlexandria, Va.

PX has all the trappings of a speakeasy — secretiveness, elegant décor and creative cocktails. "There's no sign, just a blue light indicating when it's open," Brown says. "It has a gorgeous interior. There are chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and vintage shakers around the bar. There's an expectation that gentlemen would wear a jacket. It's not strictly enforced, but you'd feel out of place without it." 703-299-8385; eamonnsdublinchipper.com

The Violet Hour Chicago

This speakeasy's name references a quote by the writer Bernard DeVoto, who described that quiet, magical time at dusk as "the violet hour, the hour of hush." It's the perfect time for a cocktail, Brown says, and The Violet Hour aims to be incredibly relaxing. "They have hush tones, a fireplace and great pre-Prohibition cocktails." 773-252-1500; theviolethour.com


"This isn't a tiny, discreet bar by any means, but guests are asked to abide by rules," Brown says. Apothecary's rules include, "No shouting, screaming, yelling, howling, hollering, yollering or other loud vocalizations unless necessary to warn the rest of us of some impending calamity." 215-735-7500; apothecarylounge.com

The Florida RoomMiami

The bar in South Beach's Delano hotel "is more contemporary; it's not referencing pre-Prohibition," Brown says. "Like a lot of today's speakeasies, it's an elegant cocktail lounge. They have a beautiful piano, a Lucite grand piano, food on the bar and then amazing cocktails." 305-672-2000; delano-hotel.com


There's no cocktail list here. Instead, patrons request a flavor and a liquor, and the bartenders whip up something on the spot. "Sometimes, people say the drinks at a speakeasy take too long, that they're too labor-intensive," Brown says. "It's a trade-off. It might take a couple extra minutes, but you don't have to pace up and down the bar. And the drinks are worth it." 617-695-1806; drinkfortpoint.com

The EdisonLos Angeles

This lounge and cabaret-style bar "isn't exactly a speakeasy," Brown says. "But it has a classic aura and great cocktails. The head bartender, Marcos Tello, is an evangelist for great cocktails." And once a week, the bar hosts Speakeasy Sundays in its Radio Room. Guests enter through a separate entrance, choose drinks from a special cocktail list and tune in to live jazz. 213-613-0000; edisondowntown.com