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Secret speakeasies alive and well

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Gerry Corcoran, a bartender at PDT in New York City, serves up a There Will Be Blood cocktail. PDT, like other nouveau speakeasies, boasts of the fresh, unique and modern cocktails it creates. (Photo by Maureen Lovett for CNS)

PX

The main room with bar and lounge at PX in Alexandria, Va. Only a blue light and pirate flag flying outside alert guests that this speakeasy, hiding within a fish-and-chips joint, is open. (Photo by Ken Wyner; courtesy of PX)

BB

A patron awaits his cocktail, made from homemade bitters and fruit juices, at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco. Nondescript from the outside, the bar runs on a reservations-only system and requires its guests to present a password prior to entry. (Photo by Justin Lew; courtesy of Bourbon & Branch)

Nestled in a corner near the entrance to New York City’s Crif Dogs restaurant sits a vintage wood-and-glass-paneled telephone booth. It’s a bit too refined for its somewhat seamy location—raising the question of what a phone booth is doing inside this deep-fried hot-dog joint?

The world of Tater Tots and Pabst Blue Ribbon merges with that of bacon-infused bourbon and masterful mixology beyond the phone booth, which is the secret entrance to an exclusive bar known as PDT, short for Please Don’t Tell. Once inside the booth, patrons say their names into the phone, and what appears to be the back wall opens into a latter-day speakeasy.

The secret door, the dodgy locale, the nostalgic 1920s decor of dark wood and leather inside—it’s all very dramatic. But PDT is not alone in its concept for a clandestine bar. In the past three years, a host of bars across the country (including 26 rated by Zagat in New York City alone) have opened, albeit cloaked in secrecy. No-name locations, buzzers, passwords and elegant ambience give bars like PDT, Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and PX in Alexandria, Va., an edge by appealing to patrons’ hunger for the elitist nature that secrecy engenders.

Can that edge override the effects of a slumping economy? At a time when restaurant patronage is at a record low, according to the National Restaurant Association, are these businesses hurting themselves by hiding and limiting the number of patrons who can enter?

The bars say they’re as successful as ever. Their secret?

“These environments are just trying to create some glamour—and like anything in life, the more difficult it is to become part of something, the more you want to be part of it,” says Giuseppe Pezzotti, a senior lecturer on food and beverage management at Cornell University’s School for Hotel Administration.

Though now perfectly legal, these modern speakeasies are throwbacks to the illicit bars that thrived between 1920 and 1933—when the sale of alcohol was banned by the Eighteenth Amendment. A Prohibition speakeasy might have been anything from a hole-in-the-wall serving just liquor to a swanky nightclub, according to food historian Michael Batterberry. “The simpler formula was fairly uniform: a door with a Cyclopean peephole (possibly hidden behind a florist’s showcase, an undertaker’s coffin, or a telephone booth), several more shackled portals, and finally a well-carpeted back room and bar,” he writes in his book “On the Town in New York: The Landmark History of Eating, Drinking, and Entertainments From the American Revolution to the Food Revolution.”

Today’s speakeasies aim to capitalize on a feeling of exclusivity combined with high-quality cocktails. They enforce a reservations-only system and don’t allow standing at the bar, all in order to create a “controlled environment” in which guests feel comfortable and the cocktails speak for themselves, says Brian Sheehy, owner of Bourbon & Branch.

The biggest draw, of course, is the allure of secrecy. “That’s the key to our success. It’s the one tool we have in our toolbox that’s really benefiting us in the moment,” Sheehy says. That and innovative cocktails, with names like the Revolver and Blood and Sand, have helped his bar offset the negative impact of the current economy.

By marketing the idea of carefully concocted drinks, rather than haphazardly poured vodka tonics, speakeasies have made it easier for consumers to justify paying between $11 and $16 for a mixed drink, says Curt Gathje, editor of Zagat’s NYC Nightlife.

In fact, the owners of Bourbon & Branch and PX both report a jump in liquor sales in January of between 15 and 20 percent from January 2007. For the full year, they say, sales rose roughly 12 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from 2007 to 2008 for each bar. By comparison, liquor sales in the U.S. rose only 2.8 percent at the producer level, down from a 5.6 percent increase in 2007, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

“In times of economic downturns, people have a tendency to drown their sorrows in alcohol,” explains Todd Thrasher, owner of and bartender at PX, which is hidden upstairs at an Old Town Alexandria fish-and-chips restaurant. Only a blue light and pirate flag flying outside alert patrons to the presence of the nondescript bar, which is open Wednesday through Saturday. After all, a “true” speakeasy—both then and now—would never spend a dollar on advertising; it gains fame through word of mouth alone.

Thrasher says he’s watched PX grow busier over the past year. The 30-seat bar is typically booked for at least one turn—meaning that each seat was occupied by at least one paying customer—on a Wednesday night; on a Saturday, there are typically three turns booked.

Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district—itself a former speakeasy neighborhood—takes reservations for its 15 booths up to 30 days in advance. After relaying the password (one of 500 that change daily), patrons are ushered away from the “madness of the world outside” into a 1920s ambience, with red velvet wallpaper, Art Deco chandeliers and recorded swing and jazz music. “People gravitate toward it,” Sheehy says. “It’s an easy place to socialize, and they can leave all the cares of the economy outside the doors.”

Back in New York, PDT takes daily reservations for its 43-seat bar starting at 3 p.m., and its six tables are “steadily full every day,” says manager Jim Meehan. The bar was filled to capacity at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, but Meehan, wary of overstating his business, says, “I don’t in any way feel insulated from the economic downturn.”

He’d rather focus on his bar’s cocktail concoctions, which combine homemade bitters, fruit juices and sodas with such unlikely ingredients as maple syrup, apple butter and even egg whites. “We’re moving the ball forward,” Meehan says. “You’re not seeing classic cocktails being featured. We’re featuring house creations. So while the spirit of the bar is historic, the actual practices and drinks we serve are modern.”

But should your interest be piqued and your speakeasy-sniffing senses intact, there are a few crucial extra details to know: Each bar has its own list of strictly enforced house rules—variations of “No cell phone use,” “No standing at the bar” and “If a lady says no, she means it.” Oh, and please, says the sign over the bar Bourbon & Branch, “Don’t even think of asking for a Cosmo.”

E-mail: jmb2259@columbia.edu