Navigating the Secret World of New York’s Lower East Side Speakeasies
If there are two things the Lower East Side takes seriously, it’s caffeine and craft cocktails. But coffee shops are a no-brainer —latte, black, iced, espresso, it’s all available on virtually every block of this old tenement neighborhood turned foodie mecca. Cocktails, however, have their very own social strata— hidden, secretive places with a very protective clientele. For a stiff drink in the Lower East Side’s exclusive speakeasies, you’ll need an insider’s recommendation and maybe a password or two.
This unmarked steel door may look uninhabited, but this no-menu mixology haven can shake up just about anything that will wet your whistle. There are no reservations, so knock lightly, give your contact info and you’ll be told to return within the hour. Average cocktail is $16. Seating is limited around the bar area, so your best bet is to let the bartenders lead the way. Ask for the penicillin —much better than it sounds!
This lesser-known spot deserves serious praise because of its innovative presentation. The newspaper menu —which I smuggled out for further study —is undeniably clever. The small food menu is the snackiest (think random combos of oysters, grilled cheese, hummus) and most eclectic in recent memory and the spirits and liqueurs list is extensive. Cocktails here can get very elaborate. Peter Piper’s Pickled Peppered Pineapple was a tongue twister of rum, pineapple and lime juice.
No longer a well-kept insider secret, PDT continues to hold its spot as one of the top cocktail bars in the city, thanks to Jim Meehan —a living god of the cocktail world. This bar requires a reservation and finding a secret door inside Crif Dogs restaurant on St. Marks Place, which many will read as a pretentious “insider” move, but the drinks here definitely make it all worthwhile. Drinks are generally in the $15 range and the wait can run up to two hours, so arrive early, leave your name, and be sure to bring plenty of greenbacks for this cash only establishment.
When venturing into Chinatown, don’t forget to stop by this “pharmacy” for a “prescription” prepared from local organic herbs grown in this bar’s rooftop garden. Basically a chemistry lab in disguise, the bar doubles as a performance space that includes hundreds of antique medicine bottles. Pop by for a cocktail class if you’re prepared to leave absinthe-minded and if you didn’t visit Mission Chinese beforehand, make sure to indulge the edamame and shiso cocktail —it’s muddled with cucumber, ginger, edamame puree and just about anything else that’s usually reserved for a pair of chopsticks.
It would be a shame to mention these amazing establishments without noting their illustrious clientele. Half the fun of visiting an LES speakeasy are the other customers. Virtually everyone you meet is either a cocktail expert or they’re dating one. And, of course, the best place to discover new secret spots is from the patron one barstool over.
Want to discover more secret foodie destinations? Check out:
- A Food Critic’s Favorite New York Neighborhood Restaurants
- Inside the Las Vegas Foodie & Craft Cocktail Scene
- A Global Editor’s Top Paris Restaurants
- The Flourishing Foodie Scene in Atlanta
By Alexis Bendjouia for PeterGreenberg.com