1. Home
  2. Travel

10 Secret Speakeasies of Modern-Day America

During the difficult years of the American Prohibition, the underground speakeasy put the “roar” into the “roaring 20’s”.  While the drink has been legal for 80 years since, the allure of underground nightlife remains today.  The concept speakeasy has returned in recent years, bringing finely-crafted cocktails and exclusive lounge environments to New York, LA, Chicago and beyond.  Join us to explore 10 of the best and all their secretive, intimate glory.

This post was brought to you by Tanqueray. Join us on Facebook to learn more.

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company – Philadelphia

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company Philadelphia 3 600x400 10 Secret Speakeasies of Modern Day America

The prohibition era made mobsters into moguls, and few were as successful as Max “Boo Boo” Hoff.  Hoff ran nearly 10,000 gallons of bootlegged booze per day out of his Philly HQ, operated under the front title of “Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company“.  In the 20s, that name represented the largest bootlegging operation in the United States.  Today, it has been revived in a Philadelphia speakeasy inspired by the work and product of Boo Boo Hoff.  Prohibition-era cocktails, vintage decor and a restrictive guest policy make this one intimate, refined and very exclusive.  If you find yourself in Philly, look for Franklin at 112 S. 18th Street.

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company – Philadelphia | Gallery

Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company Philadelphia 11 150x150 10 Secret Speakeasies of Modern Day America Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company - Philadelphia 2 Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company - Philadelphia 3

The Night Heron Water Tower Speakeasy – NYC

The Night Heron Speakeasy NYC 1

There are speakeasy-inspired bars and then there are genuine speakeasies– and this is the latter..  The Night Heron Water Tower Speakeasy in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan operated entirely outside of the line of the law.  No rent, no liquor license, no rules, no address and no way in without an invitation.  That invitation usually arrived in the form of a vintage wristwatch handed over from a past guest– with vague instructions for a time and a place to await a sponsor of sorts.  When a new guest would arrive on street corner X at time Y, a Night Heron guide would lead the new customer through empty hallways and staircases to the roof of a Chelsea building.  Finally, guests ascend a ladder to the Night Heron speakeasy inside an old water tower.  The Night Heron is now defunct, but when it was in business, it was likely the most exclusive, rare and unique nightclub experience in greater NYC.

The Night Heron Water Tower Speakeasy – NYC | Gallery

The Night Heron Speakeasy NYC 3 The Night Heron Speakeasy NYC 1 The Night Heron Speakeasy NYC 2

The Varnish – LA

The Varnish LA 3

There are plenty of places in LA to go if you want to be seen.  The Varnish is one where you go to remain incognito, to fly under the radar and bask in the lack of light in its interior.  This exclusive little bar serves up some of the finest cocktails in Los Angeles, thanks to a team of some of the city’s best mixologists.  It can be a challenge to locate, given its subtle markings at the old kitchen entrance to Cole’s, the LA legend that supposedly created the French Dip.

The Varnish – LA | Gallery

The Varnish LA 1 The Varnish LA 3 The Varnish LA 2

The Office – Chicago

The Office Chicago 1 by Star5112

While there are many great basement bars in Chicago, The Office may be the city’s finest.  The Office is the sister project of The Aviary, the latest restaurant by Michelin-recipient Grant Achatz.  This speakeasy-style underground bar is open by invitation only, about as exclusive as it gets in the Second City.  The Office serves up some of the finest prohibition-era cocktails you can find in Chicago in an environment that feels like a perfectly-curated time capsule.  After an award-winning meal at The Aviary, a drink at The Office is the perfect Chicago nightcap. [images courtesy: john joh via flickr creative commons]

The Office – Chicago | Gallery

The Office Chicago 2 by Star5112 The Office Chicago 1 by Star5112 The Office Chicago 3 by Star5112

Bathtub Gin – NYC

Bathtub Gin NYC 1

In the back of a coffee shop in New York City, a trick door opens to expose a scene right out of the 1920s, the Bathtub Gin speakeasy.  In name and in spirit, Bathtub Gin celebrates one of the most common drinks of the prohibition era.  Back in the 20s, bootlegged gin was a hardly tolerable beverage, so bartenders would find creative ways to mix and serve gin to please their guests.  In its day, the bathtub gin beverage was deeply responsible for the popularity of the cocktail.  This new NYC speakeasy hopes to do the same with fine drinks and a secretive environment to enjoy them in.

Bathtub Gin – NYC | Gallery

Bathtub Gin NYC 3 Bathtub Gin NYC 1 Bathtub Gin NYC 2

Ciros Speakeasy – Tampa

Ciros Speakeasy Tampa 3 by Yelp on Flickr

Mafia history buffs and fans of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire know the seedy side of the cigar city, Tampa, Florida.  The prohibition-era mob capitol of the south celebrates its history in a speakeasy bar a block from the bay.  Ciros Speakeasy is well-hidden to passer’s by, with an unmarked door at the base of a residential highrise on Bayshore Boulevard.  Ring a buzzer and a slot will open in the door, requested the day’s password.  Guests that are welcomed within can enjoy some of the best cocktails in central Florida in a classy, dimly-lit environment.  Bonus points for the jellyfish tank that reminds you of the tropical environment right outside of Ciro’s secretive entrance. [images courtesy: yelp.com via flickr creative commons]

Ciros Speakeasy – Tampa | Gallery

Ciros Speakeasy Tampa 1 by Yelp on Flickr Ciros Speakeasy Tampa 2 by Yelp on Flickr Ciros Speakeasy Tampa 3 by Yelp on Flickr

The Velvet Tango Room – Cleveland

The Velvet Tango Room CLE 1

If you can’t imagine Cleveland being a prohibition-era hotspot, think again.  Its location on Lake Erie made it and nearby coastal Ohio cities a shipping point for booze from Canada.  While that history is long gone, a bit of it lives on in places like The Velvet Tango Room in downtown Cleveland.  The Velvet tango serves up “cocktail art” that hails back nearly 100 years, in an environment lit largely by candles and darkened by jazz.  It’s the kind of place Capone might stop on a trip to New York from his empire in Chicago, and it’s tops in its state for speakeasy-style nightlife.

The Velvet Tango Room – Cleveland | Gallery

The Velvet Tango Room CLE 2 The Velvet Tango Room CLE 1 The Velvet Tango Room CLE 3

Bourbon and Branch – San Francisco

Bourbon and Branch SF 1 by DoNotLick

If you’re in-the-know or in search of a private detective, you’ll be awarded a fine cocktail if you enter the door marked “Wilson and Wilson Private Detective Agency” in San Francisco.  The bar is Bourbon and Branch, a speakeasy nightclub with a focus on artful cocktails and limited access.  You’ll need a password to enter Bourbon and Branch on some nights, and if you’re amongst the most important persons in the building, you might be welcomed to the speakeasy-within-a-speakeasy in the rear, a very private pub. [images courtesy: john joh and jennifer morrow via flickr creative commons]

Bourbon and Branch – San Francisco | Gallery

Bourbon and Branch SF 2 by Star5112 Bourbon and Branch SF 1 by DoNotLick Bourbon and Branch SF 3 by Star5112

Noble Experiment – San Diego

Noble Experiment San Diego 2 by DJ Venus

In an alley behind another bar, a wall of kegs is actually a secret entrance to The Noble Experiment, a modern-day speakeasy in San Diego.  From the design to the drinks to the exclusive air, The Noble Experiment is a must-experience destination in Southern(most) California.  The bar is illuminated by indirect lights that reflect off of a thousand gold skulls on the interior wall.  The rest of the environment is just as dim, with the brightest event being the cocktails themselves.  Some of the regions finest bartenders serve drinks at The Noble Experiment, and that’s what keeps the secret location packed every weekend. [images courtesy: dj venus via flickr creative commons]

Noble Experiment – San Diego | Gallery

Noble Experiment San Diego 1 by DJ Venus Noble Experiment San Diego 2 by DJ Venus Noble Experiment San Diego 3 by DJ Venus

Please Dont Tell – NYC

Please Dont Tell NYC by JMHs Random Shots 1

One of the earliest examples of the return of the speakeasy remains one of the best, namely Please Dont Tell in New York City.  A small hot dog joint near Manhattan’s Alphabet City has an old-style phone booth on a rear wall.  Inside that phone booth is the entrance to Please Don’t Tell, which claims to serve the best Old-Fashioned in New York City.  Guests can make reservations online, but if you know your way to PDT’s entrance, you might be able to sneak in one of those famous Old Fashioned’s without the formality.  Many speakeasies have come after Please Don’t Tell, but few have scraped its importance to the world of modern (and vintage) cocktails. [images courtesy: jmh-pics via flickr creative commons]

Please Dont Tell – NYC | Gallery

Please Dont Tell NYC by JMHs Random Shots 3 Please Dont Tell NYC by JMHs Random Shots 2 Please Dont Tell NYC by JMHs Random Shots 1

– – – – – – – – – –

These 10 represent some of the highest-regarded speakeasies in the United States, but there are plenty more to discover here and throughout the world.  Do you have a secret place you’d like to share with the rest of us, or one that we should have considered for this list?  Shoot us the details @thecoolist or hit us up on facebook, and in the mean time– please remember to drive responsibly!

Liked our story? Share it with friends

What do you think?

  • Phillip E. Payne

    This is really intriguing! How neat to visit one of these speakeasies and enjoy a cocktail while soaking up the atmosphere of the Roaring Twenties! How cool is that?!