Mixing the old and new

Prohibition-style speakeasies have made a furtive return to the Big Apple, writes Rob McFarland.

New York isn't short of bars. Every neighbourhood has dozens of perfectly agreeable watering holes with beers on tap and a big screen to watch the game.

Finding a truly memorable bar is another matter. Over the past few years, an underground network of elusive, Prohibition-style speakeasies has evolved.

They're difficult to find, hard to get into and often serve credit card-crippling cocktails.

So why bother? Because knocking on an unmarked door is irresistibly intriguing, watching an experienced mixologist at work is captivating, and not being surrounded by blokes screaming "Go Yankees" will be a welcome respite. Here are five to get you started.

The Raines Law Room

Entry to this seductive speakeasy in Chelsea is via an unmarked black door at the bottom of a flight of steps. The only clue that it's not a private residence is a small metal plaque that reads: "The Raines Law Room. Please ring the bell. Someone will attend to you."

Unless you have a reservation, be prepared to leave your number and wait for a call (1 1/2 hours when I visited). But once you're in, you'll be ushered through an evocative, low-ceiling lounge into an open-plan kitchen where the bartenders work their magic. Either order from the extensive cocktail menu or tell them what you like and they'll whip something up.

Wait long enough and you'll eventually score one of the coveted curtained-off booths complete with leather couches, saucy wallpaper and a pull chain to summon the waitstaff. It's a tribute to the 1896 Raines Law, which prohibited the sale of liquor on Sundays apart from in hotels. Predictably, many bars created small bedrooms to get around the law, which, somewhat ironically, led to far more illicit shenanigans.

48 West 17th Street. Reservations accepted on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays. raineslawroom.com.


Little Branch

Sasha Petraske is arguably the father of New York's speakeasy movement. He opened Milk and Honey, an exclusive, devilishly-difficult-to-get-into cocktail bar in 2000 and others quickly followed suit. Little Branch is his third establishment, and is accessed through a dilapidated metal door on the corner of Seventh Ave and Leroy Street in the West Village.

After descending a steep set of stairs you'll find yourself in an intimate, candle-lit basement. Music is courtesy of a live three-piece jazz band, and you can either perch at the bar or cuddle up in one of the cosy booths that line the walls. The atmosphere might be laid-back but the bar staff are knowledgeable and meticulous. The menu contains all the usual suspects – martinis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds – alongside recommendations for more adventurous variations.

Alternatively, just give the bartender a spirit and the type of mood you're in and prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Little Branch does not take bookings, so arrive early (or very late) to avoid the queues. It also doesn't take credit cards, so bring plenty of cash. It's all too easy to while away a night here.

20 Seventh Avenue South, West Village.

PDT (Please Don't Tell)

Half the fun of PDT is getting in. Find Crif Dogs, a fast-food joint serving deep-fried hot dogs on St Marks Place in the East Village, enter the vintage telephone booth on the corner, pick up the phone, press the buzzer and politely ask whoever answers if you can come in.

Ideally, you would have made a reservation earlier by ringing at 3pm, but even if you haven't, you might still be in luck.

If the gods are smiling, the back of the phone booth will swing open and, accompanied by a rendition of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, you'll be in.

Well, OK, the Hallelujah Chorus bit doesn't really happen, but you'll certainly feel a certain sense of elation when you step into this small, brick-lined bar with its eclectic collection of stuffed animal heads and old family portraits.

Cocktail aficionados will want to sit at the bar, while couples will be happy cosying up in a booth.

The best bit? You can order food from Crif Dogs next door.

After a few of PDT's dangerously potent libations, a deep-fried hot dog will suddenly seem like an inspired idea.

113 St Marks Place. For reservations, phone 212 614 0386 at 3pm. pdtnyc.com.

Back Room

Back Room's attempt to throw you off the scent is a sign over its entrance saying: "Lower East Side Toy Co". Don't be perturbed. Simply descend the stairs, follow the underground passage and knock on the unmarked door. Hopefully, someone will let you in and you'll pop up in an atmospheric, 1920s Prohibition-style bar that serves cocktails in teacups and beer in brown paper bags.

An imposing, mirror-backed bar dominates the lower level, from which a set of stairs leads to an expansive mezzanine decorated with paisley wallpaper, plush velvet chairs and an impressive pressed-tin ceiling.

Balancing a teacup and saucer in a busy bar requires Cirque du Soleil-style concentration, so try to nab one of the seats upstairs. From there you'll be able to see the reason behind the bar's name: a VIP-only back room that's accessed via an Agatha Christie-esque swivelling bookcase. If you manage to get past the bouncer, you're a better man than I am.

102 Norfolk Street (between Delancey and Rivington streets).

Bathtub Gin

This establishment is one of the more recent additions to the speakeasy movement, and true to the cause it has upped the ante regarding secret entrances. Access is through a false wall at the back of a fully operational coffee shop on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. Who knows how many latte drinkers have been blissfully unaware of the party going on next door? Speakeasies usually frown on larger groups, but Bathtub Gin is one of the few providing booths that can accommodate four people.

There are also intimate tables for two and a handful of seats at the bar. The lighting is appropriately seductive, and the decor is a sensual mixture of dark timber, lavishly upholstered walls and vintage chandeliers.

The bar's name refers to the process of steeping substandard gin in bath-tubs to make it more palatable. The theme echoes throughout, with bath-tub-style sinks in the bathrooms and an impressive claw-foot bath in the centre of the room. Don't worry if you're not a gin drinker; there are plenty of other tempting options on the menu.

Or you can always pop outside for a coffee.

132 Ninth Ave. bathtubginnyc.com.

The writer travelled as a guest of United Airlines.

Trip notes

Getting there

United Airlines flies daily from Sydney to New York via Los Angeles and San Francisco. 13 17 77, unitedairlines.com.au.

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