JUST BACK FROM
MY FAVORITE ORIGINAL Star Trek episode, besides all of them, was the one where Kirk and Spock ended up in a world that resembled Prohibition-era, gangster-run Chicago. It had everything I thought was cool at that age: tommy guns, tapered pinstripe suits with padded shoulders, and Spock trying to talk in gangster slang.
When I grew up and stopped liking Star Trek -- and by that, I mean when I started loving it -- I realized two things. Number one, I wanted a pinstripe suit, and number two, that episode lacked one important setting: a speakeasy.
A modern speakeasy is an inherently cool idea. Its a secret club that provides those in the know with a responsible serving of fine cocktails, to be sipped and enjoyed in the friendly shadows of a hidden neighborhood enterprise.
It should be no wonder, then, that the purveyors of hip have declared the speakeasy a trendy concept. Of course, theyre not really speakeasies. They lack the important qualification of being unlawful. So, free of seediness, these establishments can focus on the stylish elements of the speakeasy ideal (sophisticated drinks made by top-notch barkeepers in a secluded setting) without worrying about being raided by the coppers.
The seed crystals for this trend seem to have been planted in the East Village of Manhattan, and it was there that I set out to have a speakeasy experience. After I arrived at Grand Central Station, I made the walk south toward my destination: PDT, an acronym for Please Dont Tell. You need a reservation, even if you just want to have drinks, but to get one, you must call after three p.m. the day of. That means, given the popularity of the place, you must call at three p.m. Do not make the mistake I did and call at 2:58 p.m. They wont answer. And by the time you make your complicated iPhone keypad redial the number, it will be 3:01 p.m. And that means youre in for a wait.
How long? As soon as I heard the first note of the busy signal, I would hit redial -- a process I soon mastered. It took 35 minutes to get through. By then, PDT had only a few times available. I chose to be seated when it opened, at six p.m.
Part of a speakeasys charm is that its entrance is not obvious to passersby. In this case, its found inside Crif Dogs, a popular hot-dog-and-burger dive in the East Village. More specifically, the entrance is found inside a phone booth in Crif Dogs. At six sharp, I entered the wooden booth, pulled the door shut, and picked up the phone. Thats when the back wall of the booth opened, and a hostess appeared from the darkness, asking for my name.
Once inside, I was treated to the bar of my dreams: dark woods and red bricks; well-dressed expert bartenders; a stuffed grizzly on the wall, wearing a bowler. You know, a speakeasy.
I sat at a small two-seat table next to the bar. My waiter went over the drink menu, several pages of elegant offerings that suggested a sophistication I do not possess but can fake, when called upon, for one to three hours. (In fact, each drink had a full description of its origin or inspiration.)
I started with the Green Deacon, a mixture of two gins (Plymouth and sloe), grapefruit juice, and absinthe. Delightful and light. A fine start. Then, I tried the Gilchrist, a mixture of scotch, brandy, and grapefruit bitters, among other ingredients. Sublime.
As I perused the menu for my main-course cocktail -- the one I would sip while consuming a Crif dog and tater tots, prepared next door -- I overheard tourists at a table to my left.
This one has bacon in it, said one fellow, snarling his nose. I know which drink Im not going to get. The table laughed along.
The drink in question was the Bentons Old Fashioned. It was the one cocktail that called to me the loudest. Id seen the bartender prepare it on YouTube, and it had looked amazing. It had bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup, and bitters, all lovingly stirred and then poured over an enormous ice cube before being topped with a twist of orange.
I closed my eyes and sipped. It was smoky. It was smooth. It was an exquisite drink, made nearly perfect by the place in which it was consumed -- a dark corner of a hidden bar, a place for grown-ups who appreciate the art behind spirits and cocktails.
As I snuck out -- how else would you exit such a place? -- I asked myself if there was something missing. I wondered how this could have been a perfect speakeasy experience.
Oh, right. Pinstripe suit, of course.