For about ten years, I used to travel to New York regularly for business — as often as once every other month. Work took up most of my time, but I usually had opportunities to take in the local scene, both high-brow (Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, 92nd Street Y, Broadway, among others) and low-brow (Broadway, Meat Packing district, insert various lounge/club/dive here). Then the economy started to slump, priorities changed at The Day Job, and before I realized it, it had been two years since I had visited Manhattan. Even though I am decidedly NOT a NY apologist, I actually found myself missing my visits there.
My recent and upcoming trips to the city have given me cause to revisit old haunts and find some new ones, especially since some of the folks accompanying me have only done touristy New York. As the work schedule unfortunately conflicts with any hope I may have of seeing a concert, opera, or other such thing, I decided to concentrate my off-duty time (and that of my associates tagging along) on exploring the burgeoning speakeasy scene in Manhattan.
This is not exactly a new trend, and New York certainly does not have a monopoly on the concept. I remember the first visit I took many years ago to an unmarked grey box on Melrose that went by the name Smalls K.O. where you had an equal chance to be drinking next to Pasadena preppies, local bikers, and/or Anthony Kiedis and Flea; Smalls would morph into Kane, and eventually became the legendary Forty Deuce, itself an homage to the raunchier past of 42nd Street in NY. In the 90’s, countless Trents, Mikes, and other hipsters would head to the corner of Vine and Santa Monica and search for the “Bargain Clown Mart” sign, the marker for the nondescript building below it which housed Three of Clubs (or “Three Clubs” as it is now called).
All that said, there are two important differences between such local places and the New York spots that I began to frequent in the new millennium:
- The rise of “mixology” and the return to hand-crafted fancy drinks using fresh ingredients, non-generic alchohol, and a little imagination. These were cocktails that a guy could drink without fear of sullying his coolness; there wasn’t a single pink umbrella in sight.
- Some of the locations were actually real-life speakeasies back in the days when the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act were the laws of the land. And even if they weren’t, there was some inherent New York grittiness (the dank smell on the sidewalk and piles of trash in front of the unmarked door) that added to the authentic feel.
Of course, being able to walk — er, um, stumble — from place to place, or take a $10 cab ride if needed, makes the idea of going to a strange location to try out multiple stiff drinks a bit more tolerable than, say, having to convince one of your friends to be a designated driver as you jaunt from Downtown to Hollywood to the Westside exploring the L.A. scene.
So that’s what I’ve been doing lately in my spare time away from home. It’s been an interesting exploration so far. Details are forthcoming.
- “Speakeasy:” University of Southern California
- Bargain Clown Mart sign: Three Clubs