In Defense of Speakeasies: A Speakeasy Takedown
BY JACOB HALL, GIBSON GENERAL MANAGER
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
“You stand on the corner of an abandoned lot and wait for twenty minutes. Then an unmarked van pulls up and two people jump out and pull a hood over your face and put you in the van. They drive around for a few blocks, then take you out of the van, and when they pull the hood off you’re in the speakeasy.”
Of course you’ve heard that one. It’s 2019. ‘That one’ is the now prolific hidden speakeasy. Any mid-size city has a least a few of these low profile watering holes. Inexplicably, they traffic in prestige cocktails a bajillion times better than the bathtub gin that was sold in actual Prohibition-era speakeasies. Good luck enjoying them, though, because screw you if you can’t figure out the bizarre ritual of getting in. Sometimes it’s not as bad as that; sometimes it’s worse. The kidnap scenario described above (though made up) would probably not be the most outlandish speakeasy foyer out there.
The age-old practice of hiding the entrance to an exclusive haunt began trending with the likes of New York cocktail bars Milk and Honey, PDT, and Death & Co. In the mid-aughts the cultural currents were ideally suited to this development. The “hipster” instinct to invert the cultural mainstream for the sake of doing something - anything - interesting had not yet blown up, and the internet was not ubiquitously accessible on your space-phone. Information like the location and dildo protocol of a bar could not be effortlessly summoned on FaceBoogle. Hidden bars had real cachet and probably even a bit of social utility when it came to filtering out socially inept blowhards. In 2019 the internet has ruined that proposition, but the practice of opening difficult-to-find bars continues to captivate restaurateurs.
But let’s call a spade a spade. What exactly were these bars ever hiding from? America’s federal alcohol prohibition hasn’t been in force for about three months and 86 years. Of course, there are unlawful ways to sell alcohol these days (after hours, without proper licensing, infused with THC, etc.), and if you want to run an illegal alcohol retail operation, all the power to you. Sales taxes are annoying and last call is an instrument of plebeian masses jacked up on FOMO. From what I hear though, the real fly-by-night operations hide in warehouses and sell substances far less acceptable to society than an Old Fashioned.
So why has the speakeasy returned as a gimmick for entirely lawful operations? Partly, I’d say, it fits a pattern of gamifying our bars around easily discernible tropes. It takes me back to a conversation with a friend who worked at Lyman’s when it first opened, wherein I kept trying to tease out the new bar’s concept.
“So it’s a pinball bar?”
“Then what, like a neighborhood dive?”
“What’s their thing then?”
“It’s just a bar, dude.”
My inane focus on the ‘it’ of it laid bare for me that we’ve probably gone too far with x-bar, and speakeasies often take their gimmick and run it out to whimsical lengths. We are endlessly barraged by a narrative that millenials consume experiences more voraciously than products. I suspect this factors in the prominence of speakeasies, concept bars, pop-ups, and the gimmicky rendering of “adult” spaces in general. Undeniably, a speakeasy’s air of exclusivity is an experiential feature. You know a secret of which lesser mortals know not, the nondescript entrance whispers to visitors, because you’re special.
People speak of the shift to experiential consumption approvingly. It heralds a more authentic and/or communal age of consumption. But with speakeasies popping up in countries that never even banned alcohol, it seems obvious that experiences can be every bit as vacuous as possessions. A hidden entrance that serves no actual filtering or hiding function is an experience that corresponds to exclusivity or lawlessness the way pre-torn jeans correspond to the attire of rugged blue-collar labor: as a simulacra and nothing more.
Admittedly, the Gibson has been a moderately bad offender on this point. The bar certainly opened its unmarked doors just before the speakeasy shtick went truly national and not so many years before it became baroque. In ten years of aping exclusive attitudes, its staff failed as often as they succeeded at not being too aloof toward paying customers. For every three or four people who rave about their experience, there’s one who scoffs at what pretentious dicks we’ve always been. Lots (but definitely not all) of that critique is deserved. I myself have been an unforgiving agent of that pretension for years. But alas, our revolution is over.
Speakeasies have simply not been cool (if they ever even were) for years now.
Where does that leave us in general and the Gibson in particular? Is it time to open our shuttered window, put a sign out front, run happy hour, and fill our space with TVs? No. This is a defense of speakeasies after all, not an abdication of them. It turns out the hidden speakeasy’s deeply rooted flaw of performative exclusivity is conducive to social goods that are benign and even redeeming.
See, being in a hidden space really does do strange things to the mind. It’s peculiar. In the case of the Gibson, the bustle of 14th street is a mere glass window, drawn curtain, and closed garage door away. In some cases you’re seated physically closer to the crush of 14th street traffic than the actual bar. Nothing about this should be calming, but it’s visually impossible to be reminded that 14th street or anywhere it leads to even exists. The whole world beyond the bar is not only barely visible, but entirely hidden from you and you from it. The illusion alters perception every bit as much as the alcohol.
“Sure, sure. You can’t see a crappy intersection. At the end of the day it’s still just a bar,” quoth the skeptic.
Indeed it is. But the visual context changes your reality. In the way the vantage from a skybar elevates you out of routine urban life, the vantage from a hidden speakeasy negates the idea of anything beyond that space. The result is greater emotional distance from the world’s troubles--the very thing people are seeking in third places like bars. Does everyone feel that way? No, probably not. A willingness to take things as they seem certainly matters, and some people are too beholden to the matter of fact, which is ok.
But even they might find something worthwhile in a space that, whether for performative exclusivity or not, doesn’t telegraph is presence. An inescapable fact of hidden entrances is that people tend not to find them unless inducted into them. This is perhaps the hidden speakeasy’s best accidental feature--the shtick forces a social consensus at the outset because so few people end up there by accident.
And it’s the combination of these elements that makes the magic. In a secluded space, emotionally removed from the hardship of the world, you relax in the company of intimates. The bond you share, even with total strangers, is the improbability of any of you being there in the first place. It’s practically home, but it’s not and somehow that makes it even better. But with this semi-magical seclusion comes a quality that--though generique to hidden entrance speakeasies--manifests itself uniquely from bar to bar.
Having witnessed it for seven years, I can assure everyone that the convergence of emotional distance from the rest of the world and the social consensus of the participants intensifies whatever experience a bar otherwise represents. I get shitty service from tattooed bartenders and moody candlelight for dates at dozens of bars in the city, but only at a bar with hidden entrance does that become “hipster douchebags” or “fuck bar” (two common reactions to the Gibson throughout the years).
Ultimately, the most accurate thing you can say about speakeasies in 2019 is that they’re not so bad when they’re not so bad, but when they’re good they’re so much more.