Credit the return of moonshine, the popularity of "Big Bad" antiheroes on television, or retro-fascination; but whatever the underlying appeal, shady figures from the underworld are suddenly in vogue with America's hippest night-owl crowds. Outlaws, mobsters, moonshiners and even lady pirates are the new tastemaker icons in big cities from Austin to Vegas to NYC. Here's a collection of our favorite crime-inspired whiskey bars, mysterious speakeasies, and Cold War venues!
Photo Courtesy of Dead Rabbit
The 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 Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, 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, and they serve up Manhattan's crime-ridden early history right in the cocktail menu, alongside the award-winning punches and Irish whiskey cocktails. Sawdust floors and traditional music lend further notes of authenticity. Photo 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 itself into the Mob Bar. The bar is known for good drinks, Italian food, classic gangster movies, and surprisingly friendly service given the thug-life theme.
Photo Courtesy of Grace Bar
Grace Bar, New York City
New York pub owner Danny McDonald surely should win some major feminist brownie points for theming his Third Avenue Grace 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 Courtesy of Arizona Biltmore
Mystery Room, Arizona
Speakeasy-style bars met a boom in popularity a couple years ago, hand-in-hand with the return of 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. Photo Courtesy of Bodega
Bodega, Salt Lake City
For residents of New York, a bodega is a tiny neighborhood store where you get coffee, snacks 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). 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 Courtesy Villains Tavern
Villains Tavern, Los Angeles
What sort of baddies might lurk in this sprawling Arts District bar/live music venue is hard to say. The neighborhood is iffy, but the vibe inside the place is an anything-goes mellowness and the service is patient and professional. The Villains Tavern's 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 among the boozed-up hipster crowd even raising an eyebrow. Photo 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, but Portland is one of them. With zero fear of finger-chopping retaliation, the Yakuza 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 amongst the other "beautiful outcasts" of Portlandia. Photo Courtesy of Russian House Austin
Russian House NaZdorovye, Austin
Growing up in Generation X or Y, most of the world lived in fear of the Cold War escalating to full-scale fiery nuclear war. Only in very recent years has the Soviet Union become retro-kitsch and chic. At Austin's new Russian House 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 venue goes full-on White Russian. And thankfully, in this time and place, nobody from the KGB is looking for people who step across party lines.