After President Herbert Hoover announced the 18th amendment as, “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive,” thousands of underground bars and saloons were fashioned all across the country, known as speakeasies. The alcohol was arranged by bootleggers or practiced in the back of many of these institutions. Night after night, patrons sipped from teacups filled with this illegal juice as if it were their last night on earth. New York was no exception!
“Volstead Act-1920, “No person shall on or after the date when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this act.” Yeah right!”
As the years of Prohibition advanced, so did the number of illegal establishments. With an increase in speakeasy population, there was a boost in police corruption. This was especially true in New York City. Bar owners granted bribes to enforcement teams to avoid raids or just to give them a heads up if a raid was to be imminent.
Today you can avoid the raids and sip on a good stiff drink at a number of these former speakeasies.
Begin your night at Onieals Grand Street Bar, formerly known as The Press Room, and is immersed with earlier sleaze. The sleazier the club the better the story though. Housed across the street was the police department with an underground tunnel dug to connect itself to its speakeasy neighbor. The tunnel provided access for New York’s finest to join in on the unlawful fun.
Today, the tunnel has been filled but the aura of the time is still sensed. Cozy yourself up to the bar or at one of the cocktail tables connected to the banquet. Anywhere you sit, you can look up at the mahogany ceiling and stare back at the four grinning devil’s heads peering over. On Tuesday nights from 7pm-10pm, live jazz music is provided. The food is decent and the service is friendly and a pleasant spot for an intimate evening or a night out with friends.
Next, head to Fanelli Café. During prohibition this establishment served non alcoholic beverages to outsiders and law enforcement. If you were a regular however, you were given something a little more firm. More than likely your beverage was homemade in a back room.
Today, Fanelli Café still provides hard drinks, while holding on to all the same interiors as it did back then. The walls broadcast the same photographs of former boxers and the same light fixtures hang from the pressed tin ceiling. The feeling inside is that of a neighborhood restaurant, where families and locals pop in for a good bite to eat and a beer, not to mention the late night party goers looking for an overdue dinner. The tables are close together and are covered with red and white checked table cloths. Comforting food and drinks for a great price, what could be better?
Next on the agenda: Bill’s Gay Nineties. Originally a residential brown stone it was boarded up and transformed into a high-flying speakeasy. Originator, Bill Hardy, made every night a celebration with food, entertainment, and of course “cheer,” as long as you knew the password.
You can still walk through the original swinging doors into the Silver Dollar Bar and feel like you’ve gone back in time. All of the original sports memorabilia, along with some newer additions, still remain on the walls. Upon arrival you will be greeted by manager Aldo Leone, who has worked at the establishment for over 45 years, and is a legend in his own time. You can be seated at a table or at the hand carved antique bar for a meal and a drink. As you sip on your now legal beverage, you can enjoy the sounds from the piano bar. There is live entertainment from the piano Monday-Saturday.
Next, head to Flute Midtown, originally named Club Intyme was run by the legendary Texas Guinan. Coining the phrase, “Hello Suckers,” she welcomed patrons with open arms. New York’s wealthy and elite obliged to the invitation. Club Intyme was not only a place for a drink but for some slightly raunchy entertainment. Guinan encouraged the more well-off patrons to tip big for such performances. Though in 1926, Guinan was arrested several times during numerous raids, she still managed to earn over $700,000 over the ten months Club Intyme would shut down then reopen.
Remaining below street level, walk down the stairs to a great champagne bar: Flute. You can warm yourself up behind a velvet curtained table with a significant other or enjoy an open table. Flute sells over 100 different bottles of champagne as well as full bar and superior wines. A far cry from the bawdy entertainment of Club Intyme, the acts have been replaced with live jazz on Wednesdays and DJ’s on Thursdays.
To round out the evening is a visit to the 21 Club, one of New York’s most notorious speakeasies. Owned by cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns, 21 Club was one of four speakeasies opened by the gentlemen. With the help of architects, Kriendler and Berns outwitted law enforcement with a series of silent bells and whistles to alert management that a raid was about to happen. The biggest secret to the 21 Club was and still remains in the wine cellar. A two-ton brick wall built on hinges was used to conceal cases of smuggled goods from the police. The only instrument to open the “door,” was a meat skewer. This meat skewer is still the key today.
Today you can walk past the line of thirty jockey statues and into old New York. As it was when it first opened, 21 Club is coat and tie required. On the first floor, the bar is the center of the room. It overlooks the first floor dining room and a comfortable lounge area. You will not miss the toys and other memorabilia hanging from the ceiling. These items were given to the institution by loyal patrons and customers. The wine cellar is now a private dining area with the clubs most desired table.
Whether you are going to the 21 Club for a drink or for dinner, make sure you bring a heavy wallet.
Though there are clubs and bars in the city mimicking the idea of a speakeasy, the genuine feel is not present. When visiting these historical landmarks, you can’t help but take a moment to remember the legends that made the Roaring Twenties so loud.
What & Where:
Onieal’s Grand Street Bar (174 Grand St; 212-941-9119)
Fanelli Café (94 Prince St; 212-226-9412)
Bill’s Gay Nineties (57 East 54th St; 212-355-0243
Flute Midtown (205 West 54th St; 212-265-5169)
21 Club (21 West 52nd St; 212-582-7200)