This time last year I was lucky enough to be living in New York for a couple of months. One of the local fashions there at the time was for hidden bars, speakeasies, only accessible to those in the know. They were strong throwbacks to the prohibition era, and also charmingly easy to find. Time Out and guide books gave the exact address and password to use, and obviously all were properly licenced.
We lived a couple of doors down from one and despite the ease of access it was a genuine thrill to realise the unmarked door with the light over it hid a cocktail bar on the other side. We ate there one night and had a couple of amazing cocktails, and gave the largest tip of my life in a drunken blur. Inside, it felt like a regular bar on a regular street, if a little dark. The mystery and excitement of lack of signage gave way to the reality of the mechanics of a working bar. Presumably just like speakeasies did.
A few streets away, a taco place with attitude had an unmarked door with a bouncer on it, and a guest list. We never went through the door, but my understanding is that tacos and cocktails awaited. One would hope providing faster service than we received from the taco takeaway upstairs.
And another bar required guests to speak a passphrase into a phone in a phone booth. My memory is that if you’re name wasn’t down, you still weren’t coming in.
In a New York setting this nostalgia about underground drinking seemed romanticised (in some ways disturbingly so) but also fun. A sort of reclaiming and extension of a situation that had been a real part of the city. You could imagine that the venue that was now fully licenced had once done this same thing in a far less legal way. The line was clear between two New York realities.
And so it is odd to me that London, where prohibition never existed, has such a vibrant speakeasy scene. And I know it has because they are advertised in Time Out, guide books, and guide apps, just like all the best secrets.
Speakeasies in London have a different energy to them. Just as New York Soho venues seem authentic with exposed brick walls, while London’s Soho venues feel like they should be properly wallpapered, central London speakeasies feel like a childish game of charades, rather than anything with genuine danger attached.
London has a different history, and in some ways it’s a history of shameless adoption of good ideas. Speakeasies included! It feels to me like these have become part of the landscape, along with well advertised basement bars, coffee shops that slip into selling alcohol in the evenings, traditional pubs, wine bars overlooking the Thames, and craft beer bars. There’s even a chain of alcohol-free cocktails bars.
So, I’m not complaining about the London speakeasies. I’m just saying the gin basement bar with clear signage, and the real ale pub with the latest local beer will get my custom, too.