The last decade has seen a proliferation of "secret" bars pop up all over the US. A tribute to the illicit underground speakeasies that operated during Prohibition in the 1920s, they're often accessed via an incongruous entrance or hidden behind an unmarked door – all of which adds to the thrill of discovery. New York once led the pack when it came to these clandestine drinking dens but LA is now hot on its heels. Here are six of the best:
Expect to be confronted by sex when you enter this subterranean Hollywood bar – at least, a red neon sign saying "sex". There's certainly a sultry vibe to the place thanks to dim lighting, cosy leather booths and acres of dark wood panelling. Created by LA's nightlife wonder-twins Mark and Jonnie Houston, the bar is accessed via an anonymous stairwell hidden in a dark alleyway off Hollywood Blvd. Come early before the queues start and you'll be able to explore the bar's many nooks and crannies and chat to its dapper, braces-sporting mixologists. As the evening progresses, the revelry ramps up with DJs, live bands and a pumping dance floor. 1725 N. Hudson Ave. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10pm-2am. See dirtylaundrybarla.com.
Another Houston brothers concoction, No Vacancy is housed inside a restored Victorian home, stumbling distance from Dirty Laundry. There's some entertaining theatre to getting in (which I won't spoil) but once inside you'll be plunged into the glamour of the early 1900s thanks to red velvet banquettes, elegant wood panelling and an intimate courtyard complete with outdoor fireplaces. Enjoy carefully crafted Prohibition-era libations from some of the city's best bartenders plus an intriguing line-up of live entertainment, including burlesque dancers and gasp-inducing tightrope walkers. 1727 N. Hudson Ave. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 8pm-2am. See novacancyla.com.
Lock & Key
Taking the entrance process up a notch is Lock & Key in Koreatown. Finding the unassuming red door on Vermont Avenue is fairly straightforward; figuring out which of the dozens of keys and knobs on the inner door will actually get you in, not so much. Thankfully, there's a hostess to assist and once inside you'll find a cosy, flatteringly-lit bar with a handful of plush green booths and a soothing soundtrack of smooth jazz. Expertly mixed craft cocktails are the order of the day here with names such as Torpedo, Razzle-Dazzle and Secret Coalition. Once you've recovered from the shock of getting in, look up for another surprise. Mirrored ceiling anyone? 239 S. Vermont Ave. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 7pm-2am; Sunday from 5pm-12am. See lockandkey.la.
Break Room 86
Just when you thought getting into a joint couldn't get any more surreal, the Houston brothers raise the bar once again. Tucked around the back of the Line Hotel in Koreatown is a loading dock. Except it isn't. It's actually the entrance to the brothers' latest creation, Break Room 86. Talk nicely to the bouncer and you'll be escorted down a fluorescent-lit corridor lined with packing cases and shown a vending machine. Except it isn't. It's actually the door to an '80s-themed tribute bar that's been decked out with authentic memorabilia including a row of classic arcade games, drinks menus fashioned out of old VHS cases and an entire wall of cassette tapes. Order a Purple Rain cocktail, belt out a few tunes in one of the four karaoke rooms then hit the dance floor and unleash your best '80s moves. Just don't forget your headband. 630 S. Ardmore Ave. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 9pm-2am. See breakroom86.com.
Thanks to its world-famous French dip sandwich (an artery-threatening beef roll dipped in a bowl of salty beef broth), Coles restaurant makes it onto many Downtown LA itineraries. What's not so well-known is that it's also home to The Varnish, a surreptitious speakeasy accessed through an unassuming back door (look for the cocktail symbol) that serves killer cocktails with a side order of live jazz. Choose one of the six signature drinks from the refreshingly short one-page menu (I can vouch for the Rum Smash) or throw caution to the wind and let the bartender decide with Dealer's Choice. Either way, you've just found one of LA's hidden drinking gems. 118 East 6th St. Open daily from 7pm-2am. See 213dthospitality.com.
Who said speakeasies have to be small, intimate affairs? The Edison is housed in the basement of LA's first private power plant, a vast space that's been transformed into an atmospheric 1920s-style drinking den. No elaborate entrance puzzles here; simply find the alleyway between 2nd and 3rd Streets and a hostess in flapper attire will usher you into a sprawling subterranean world of riotous revelry. Check out the black and white vintage movies projected onto the walls and indulge in hand-crafted cocktails made by moustachioed mixologists. Come at the weekend and you'll find live burlesque shows and partygoers in roaring '20s period attire. 108 W 2nd St. Open Wednesday to Friday from 5pm-2am; Saturday from 7pm-2am. See edisondowntown.com.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Discover Los Angeles.
Qantas flies to Los Angeles from Sydney and Melbourne. See qantas.com.au.
The hip and trendy Line Hotel is the perfect base for exploring Koreatown. Rooms from about $320. See thelinehotel.com.