Underworld Chic: Nightlife's Latest Trend

PHOTO: Whiskey House presented by Dead Rabbit and Midleton Distillery
Courtesy of Dead Rabbit and Midleton Distillery

Credit the return of moonshine, the popularity of Big Bad antiheroes on TV, or the public disaffection toward overly sleek, glossy lounges and "bottle service" club style. Whatever the motivation, underworld themes are becoming increasingly popular in the latest crop of hipster nightlife spots. Outlaws, mobsters, moonshiners and even lady pirates are the new tastemaker icons in big cities from Austin to Vegas to NYC.

PHOTO: Dead Rabbit.
Courtesy of Dead Rabbit
Dead Rabbit | New York City

History buffs and Leonardo DiCaprio fans may know the Dead Rabbits as the fearsome Five Points street gang immortalized in a Martin Scorsese movie, but for Wall Street workers and downtown tourists, Dead Rabbit is associated with award-winning cocktails, not 1800s-era thugs. The owners did their historic homework, though. They serve up Manhattan's crime-ridden early history right in the menu, alongside award-winning 19th century cocktails like Baltimore eggnog, Ginger Daisy and Grandieur punch. Sawdust floors and traditional music lend just enough authenticity.

PHOTO: Mob Bar.
Courtesy of Mob Bar
Mob Bar | Las Vegas

It's funny to think that for a few brief years, Las Vegas wanted to hide its seedy beginning behind a family-friendly façade. That phase was not only short-lived, but also seems to have spurred Las Vegans to embrace all the shady history that built it. When the city-sponsored Mob Museum opened in 2012, an upscale cocktail lounge across the street piggybacked on the good PR and transformed into the Mob Bar—known for good drinks and Italian food, classic gangster movies and surprisingly friendly service given the thug-life theme.

Courtesy of GRACE
GRACE | New York City

New York pub owner Danny McDonald surely should win some major feminist brownie points for theming his Third Avenue bar after 16th century "pirate queen" Grace O'Malley. "Though pirates do have a dubious reputation," he says, "Grace is revered as a folk hero who commanded her own fleet and went head-to-head against Queen Elizabeth I to free her imprisoned son." Good history lesson + good libations = win.

PHOTO: Mystery Room at the Arizona Biltmore.
Courtesy of Arizona Biltmore
Mystery Room | Phoenix

Speakeasy-style bars came into vogue a couple years ago, hand-in-hand with the return to classic cocktails. But most so-called speakeasies can't claim roots that truly go back to the 1920s, nor as elegant a setting as the historic Arizona Biltmore. Back in 1929, the Mystery Room was a secret of the newly opened hotel—also nicknamed the "Men's Smoker"—with a well stocked liquor cabinet disguised as a bookshelf. Its latest brand-new incarnation is a weekly Roaring Twenties party that you need a password to enter.

Bodega | Salt Lake City

For residents of New York, a bodega is a tiny neighborhood store where you get coffee, snacks, emergency bathroom supplies and beer while sidestepping the neighborhood crazies. For one woman who returned from New York to her hometown of Salt Lake City, Bodega is an homage to the super-exclusive hipster hangouts that New York is famous for (and simultaneously reviled for…and sent up on SNL). Owner Sara Lund has really gone the distance, building a Playboy-plastered storefront that hawks sundries up top, while all the "insider" action is tucked behind a secret door.

PHOTO: Villains Tavern
Courtesy Villains Tavern
Villains Tavern | Los Angeles

Specifically what sort of baddies might lurk in this sprawling Arts District bar/live music venue, it's hard to say. The neighborhood is iffy, but the vibe inside the place is anything-goes mellow, and the service is patient and professional. The Villains theme seems more a testament to the Deco-Goth-Jazz Age-jumble sale décor and dim lighting, which suggest that scenes out of a quirky crime drama might be taking place here in dark corners—without anyone in the hipster crowd raising an eyebrow.

PHOTO: Yakuza Lounge.
Courtesy Yakuza Lounge
Yakuza Lounge | Portland

There are very few cities in the world that would blithely disregard the bloodthirsty reputation of the Japanese mob and borrow its name for a hipster hangout. Portland, Ore., is one of them. With zero fear of finger-chopping retaliation, the Lounge founders borrow the artistic style normally seen in Yakuza full-body tattoos for their wall murals; and generously issue an invitation to the old-school Yakuza families to come have some farm-to-table izakaya (Japanese pub food) amongst the other "beautiful outcasts" of Portlandia.

PHOTO: Russian House NaZdorovye
Courtesy of Russian House Austin
Russian House NaZdorovye | Austin

Growing up in Generation X or Y, most of the world lived in the shadow of the Cold War. But a generation after the fall of the Wall, with Russia established as a firm frenemy of the West, Soviet Union memorabilia has become downright retro-chic. At Austin's new Russian House NaZdorovye ("to your health") restaurant/lounge, tastemakers flock to partake of peasant food, Communist folk songs and Soviet party propaganda – all tongue-in-cheek, of course. For special occasions, the dress code and feasting goes full-on Czarist White Russian … because thankfully, in this time and place, it's fine to blur the party lines.

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