The time has finally come to start embarking on my “Speakeasy” section of the list. A Speakeasy, also called “blind pig” or “blind tiger,” is term that comes from the Prohibition era, and is an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages. The Prohibition Era began in 1920 and ended in 1933, and America was full of these disguised drinking establishments that were either hidden, or behind a “cover shop” like a laundromat, toy store, and other inconspicuous locations of that nature.
The epicenter for the “Speakeasy” of the late 1920s was of course, New York, where the depression ran rampant and the drinks were in high demand. There are about 10 of these original Speakeasys scattered throughout the city, which are designed to maintain the Prohibition in the Era vibe. The Back Room, located in the back room of another Manhattan establishment, is among the best of the Speakeasys in the city.
The Back Room is on 102 Norfolk Street, in the Lower East Side. The entrance to the bar goes totally unseen, and visitors must look for the “Lower East Side Toy Co” sign hanging on a gate that is blocking the entrance to an alley staircase entrance. To enter, you open this gate, walk down the flight of steps and into an alley with “please be quite” spray painted on the concrete walls. The alley ends with another set of stairs, where you ring the door bell to get in the Back Room. On busy nights, guests will stay on the stoop unanswered for up to an hour, so you have to be patient to be let in. When the doorman finally does open up, he will grill you about why you are there, and who you are trying to see. Just stay cool, and give him some ‘tude…they will let you in.
Once inside, the bar is an amazing open space that zaps you right back in time into the 1920s. There is a live band playing jazz in the corner and wet bar that serves hard-alcohol drinks in tea cups, and beers in brown paper bags. The bar is spread over two floors, and decorated in rich reds and golds, with warm wood floors and elegant chandeliers. To play into the Prohibition theme, the bar also has old school, coin-operated pay phones.
A fun tip to those interested: the bookcase at the back of the bar, after you pass the restrooms, is actually a faux door that leads into a private VIP room, complete with full-service bar and lounge area. This back room, of the Back Room, is a must-see if you can get through!
The Back Room
102 Norfolk Street, NY NY, 10002
Tue-Sat: 7:30PM – 4AM
$8 average drink
Origin of Speakeasy Name:
I just could not help myself! If you are interested in more history about Speakeasies here it is:
The term “Speakeasy” is thought to have originated in Pennsylvania in 1888, when the Brooks High-License Act raised the state fee for a saloon licences from $50 to $500. Forced out of business, the number of legally owned establishments plummeted, but some continued to operate illegally. Kate Hester, a barmaid, ran one of these illegal bars in McKeensport, PA, and when the customers got too rowdy, she would hush them, whispering: “Speak easy, boys! Speak easy!” A 1889 newspaper caught wind of the bar, and printed: “unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies.”
As for the “blind pig” or the “bling tiger” names, these were the venues that applied to lower-class establishments that charged their patrons to see an attraction, such as an animal, and serve them and alcoholic beverage, circumventing the law. A speakeasy was usually a higher-class establishment, that offered food and entertainment.
Last note, I promise….the Prohibition era and the Speakeasys era are directly linked with organized crime in the United States. During this time, there was a drastic increase in the gangsters and mobsters including Dutch Schultz, Al Capone and Luck Luciano. These gangsters all made their fortune by supplying illegal beer and liquor to speakeasies across the country.