Speakeasy Does It: Manhattan’s Best Speakeasies

Speakeasy Does It: Manhattan’s Best Speakeasies
What the Duke's Having. All photos by Mary Martin

What the Duke’s Having. All photos by Mary Martin

Are you up for a night of dimly-lit merrymaking and great drinks to boot? Adventure across every drinking scene imaginable with me as I explore the underbelly of the New York City nightlife, checking in and drinking up all the best speakeasy bars Manhattan has to offer.

Milk and Honey

Hours: 6pm-3am
Location: 30 E 23rd Street, Flatiron

Behind an unmarked door somewhere in Flatiron lies a cozy yet classy spread of booze and schmooze known as Milk and Honey.

Not only is this speakeasy bar off the grid, it’s also off-menu. Every drink is made on a whim, and right on the spot. Just tell your server what you have a taste for: something sour, something oaky and smoky, something strong that will knock me face first into tomorrow. Whoever you are, however you feel, the bar lords of Milk and Honey will whip up anything to your liver and heart’s own desire.

My own off-menu order turned out to be a little off-hand itself: “Pour me up a glass of whatever John Wayne’s having if he strolls in tonight.” With a smirk, my server returned with my drink saying he knew without a doubt this was the drink the Duke himself would order.

The bourbon-built cocktail washed down in waves. A stiff first sip, toasty on the way down with a finishing hint of honey. So if you find yourself stumbling into Milk and Honey tonight, be sure to tell your server, “I’ll have what The Duke’s having.”

The Garret

Hours: 5pm-1am
Location: 296 Bleecker Street, The West Village

I’m not joking when I say that in order to gain access to this speakeasy, you have to go through five guys. The Garret is a delightful, little speakeasy elaborately tucked above a Five Guys Burgers & Fries.

At first glance, The Garret casts a guise of your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, hole-in-the-wall whiskey bar, but the longer you linger the more you’re surprised by its charms. The walls are lavished in local art pieces and quirks. A cryptic word of caution to anyone venturing to the bathroom: remember which doorknob you locked upon entering.

The Garret Bathroom

I went off-menu for this stop and ordered a tried-and-true Old Fashioned. By far the strongest drink to make this list (my bartender seemed to favor bourbon over bitters), my Old Fashioned gave my night just the kick it needed to make it interesting.

If you’re looking for a good old-fashioned time, look no further than this well hidden dandy.

Employees Only

Hours: 5pm-1am
Location: 510 Hudson Street, The West Village

The Quiet Storm

The ambiance of Employees Only isn’t as intimate as its name leads on. Perhaps the most popular of spots on this list, this swing on a speakeasy can draw quite a crowd on a Tuesday night.

I would also deem it the rowdiest of the list. It was also very well-lit. Now don’t get me wrong, I dig the dim and the deep of a good speakeasy — the more I drink, the less others will notice. But given the larger crowd this bar tends to draw, the house turns up the lights, and the cocktails too.

Employee’s Only has a wonderfully stocked selection of wine, beer, and spirits with a glorious wall of liquor crowning the main bar.

My favorite cocktail on this list by far is the Quiet Storm. This cool, revitalizing bourbon-based bomb is mixed with lemon juice, tea-infused vermouth, and a spirited and spicy ginger beer. And it all goes down like a smooth dollop of sunshine.

The location of Employees Only is perhaps the easiest to spot. Be sure to keep an eye out for a neon-pink psychic the next time you’re strolling down Hudson Street. If it catches your eye, you know you’ve gone to the right place at exactly the right time.

Little Branch

Hours: 7pm-3am
Location: 20 7th Avenue, The West Village

Irish Coffee at Little Branch

I first happened upon Little Branch by literally happening upon it. Bound for another
speakeasy-esque bar called Middle Branch, I accidentally aimed my search a little lower and wound up in the West Village, making the most rewarding misguided detour of my night life.

Hidden in plain sight and sandwiched between Bedford and St. Luke’s Place, Little Branch is a basement speakeasy with the feel of an authentic Prohibition dive. The staff has stripped the speakeasy down to its bare bones, a place where good people meet for great drinks. In this respect, while nursing a comfy corner of the bar, I did right by my ancestors and fancied myself an Irish Coffee.

The low ceilings, cracked concrete walls, and awkward acoustics all add to Little Branch’s noir charm. It’s the grittiest stop on the map with an assortment of cocktails so explosively good, you’ll wonder why others haven’t heard of it yet.

A word of caution: Little Branch is an all-cash bar. So if you want spend your evening like the dans and dames of older days, bring some scratch to spare.

The Backroom Bar

Hours: 7:30 pm-3am
Location: 102 Norfolk Street, The Lower East Side

If it’s authenticity you’re searching for, check out The Backroom. One of only two Prohibition-era speakeasies still operating in NYC, The Backroom Bar still runs like a charm.

The sound of jazz breezing over the speakers acts as the ideal score for this long-living speakeasy. Soft, red lamplights cast warm shadows up the walls and along the curves of
10-foot-tall portraits of 1920s pin-up beauties. An ambiance of age and elegance rests over the place, which also seeps into its drinks.

To keep with the bar’s tradition of keeping with tradition, the Lynchburg Lemonade is served in a tea cup. This was a tactic used to ward off police “because a fella can pass off as sober, so long as he’s nipping from a teacup.”

Romp around the bar and the dance floor, but be sure to swing upstairs for some prime parlor seating. In this room almost a century ago, notorious bootleg sharks Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky used to hold “business” meetings.

The Backroom Bar is perhaps the hardest speakeasy to spot of these five, but if you’re successful in your quest, you are surely up for a good time. After all, the brightest of hidden gems are always the hardest to find.

The best way to get an insider’s opinion on these best-kept speakeasy secrets is to seek them out yourself. So whether you’re an old soul, an old timer, or just looking for some good old-fashioned fun, the underground world of the Manhattan speakeasy is your scene for the stealing.

"Speakeasy Does It: Manhattan’s Best Speakeasies" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.