Entries in Speakeasies (7)


Weather Up Tribeca

Weather Up Tribeca is the second branch of a popular Prospect Heights cocktail lounge, named for owner Kathryn Weatherup. Like many of its breathren, it occupies an unmarked storefront: I walked right by it, and onto the next block, before realizing I’d gone too far.

The attractive space is dark and deep, with plenty of booth and bar seating, and a high ceiling covered in subway tile. It has “date place” written all over it. But my initially favorable impression quickly turned to dismay, when I sat down on one of the bar stools, which are permanently attached to the floor. I was left with the choice of sitting straight up, with the bar an uncomfortable distance away; or bending over uncomfortably, so that I could lean on the counter top.

There’s faux elegance, with your bill being presented handwritten on a business card, and the credit card slip returned in a pre-printed envelope. But a place trying so hard to be upscale ought to have a coat rack. There are hooks underneath the bar, which left my long winter coat dragging on the floor.

The cocktail list (photo here) is too short, with just six choices listed. This compares unfavorably to places like Please Don’t Tell, Death & Co., and Pegu Club, with lists that go on for multiple pages. I suppose they are encouraging you to go off-list, but the busy trainee bartenders did not inspire much faith.

I had the White Horse (Scotch Whisky, Ginger Syrup, Lemon, Orange Juice, and Bitters) and the Quaker (Rye Whisky, Cognac, Grenadine, Lemon Juice), both $14. I would have stayed for more if the bar seating weren’t so damned awkward.

There’s a $6,000 ice machine in the basement:

According to Mr. Boccato, it produces two 300-pound blocks of crystal clear ice every three to four days through a slow-freezing cycle. A pump mounted inside the machine’s cabinets circulates the water, thus preventing impurities from freezing into the block, and as well as the formation of troublesome oxygen bubbles and striations which make carving difficult.

“Essentially this ice freezes in the same fashion as natural ice freezes in a lake — from the bottom up,” Mr. Boccato said. “Once the cycle is finished, excess water and impurities are removed from the top of the block prior to harvesting by use of a common wet and dry vacuum. The blocks are then broken down to suit our needs.”

I asked about food, and was told the menu is limited to caviar and oysters—an awfully limited set of choices. The Times reported that french fries are served, but the “chef” told Eater.com that there are no fries, because the kitchen doesn’t have the equipment for making them.

The ice gimmick aside, Weather Up Tribeca is a disappointment.

Weather Up Tribeca (159 Duane St. between Hudson St. & West Broadway, Tribeca


The Humm Dog

A couple of years ago, the East Village speakeasy bar Please Don’t Tell began to offer hot dogs inspired by local chefs, such as the Chang Dog and the Wylie Dog. (PDT’s adjoining sister joint, Crif Dogs, probably makes the city’s best hot dogs—the best we’ve tasted, at any rate.)

Last year, they added a Humm Dog, inspired by Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm. It was dropped after a couple of months, as the $6 selling price wasn’t sufficient to recover the cost of the truffle mayo in the recipe. (A “daintier, pricer” version of it was briefly offered at EMP itself.)

The Humm Dog (pronounced whom dog) has returned, but only for the month of December. It’s still $6.

As before, it’s a bacon-wrapped deep-fried hot dog with celery relish, melted Gruyère cheese, and truffle mayo. I shot the best photo I could in PDT’s dim light; the websites I linked show it in much better light.

A bit messy to eat, it’s nevertheless fetchingly delicious, and really a bargain at $6. We saw more of those coming out than any other hot dog they sell.

Most of PDT’s cocktails, on the other hand, are $15, so the evening gets expensive before you know it.

Please Don’t Tell (113 St. Marks Pl. btwn 1st Ave. & Ave. A, East Village)


Death & Co.

Death & Co. was the third stop on my speakeasy crawl—after Please Don’t Tell and Angel’s Share. As I write this, I see that their website is blocked at work, which is hilarious, given that there are dozens of other bars with websites that I can get to easily.

There’s no hidden door to get into Death & Co. The street entrance is in plain sight, but it’s a barely-marked wooden door with the name of the establishment written in such small print that you could easily miss it.

Like the other speakeasies, standees aren’t allowed, so you have to wait until a seat is available. The host is outside, so you don’t even get to look at the place until he lets you in. It was about 9:00 p.m., which is pretty early for a Friday night in the East Village; even so, I waited about five minutes, but I was alone. For couples, the host had a long waiting list.

The dark photo (above) is no exaggeration: there isn’t a lot of light. Like a casino, there are no open windows, and you could easily lose track of time. But I hadn’t lost track of my cocktail count, and I decided to have just one.

The cocktail menu is in categories organized by the main ingredient (gin, rum, tequila, brandy, etc.). They are every bit as inventive, and as well made, as at Please Don’t Tell. I settled on the Black Magic ($13; cognac, angostura, 5-year rum, white crème de menthe, fernet branca, and absinthe).

The food here is compelling, with a selection of bar snacks (most under $15) that go beyond the obvious—for a cocktail bar. I had an order of really well made barbecued pulled-pork sliders ($12): three plump helpings of pork on toasted mini-buns, and potato salad too. Most nights, that could be dinner for me.

I’m not quite sure when I’ll make it back—the line to get in is rather daunting (to me)—but I was impressed here.

Death & Co. (433 E. 6th Street between First Avenue & Avenue A, East Village)


Angel’s Share

After a visit to Crif Dogs & Please Don’t Tell, I continued my East Village speakeasy crawl at Angel’s Share. The name comes from the splash of wine in each wine bottle that sommeliers sometimes keep for themselves — the angel’s share, as it is called.

Like other speakeasies, this one is hard to find. The tiny number 6 above the door is the only hint of an address. It’s not even immediately apparent that you can eat here.

Go up the stairs, and you’re plunged into a Japanese restaurant called Village Yokocho. The entrance to Angel’s Share is behind an unmarked wooden door. A hostess escorts you to the bar or a table, and as at other speakeasies, they will not accommodate you unless there is a vacant seat.

In 2002, New York called Angel’s Share the city’s best date bar, but I found the space charmless, the lighting too bright and unkind, the servers unfriendly. Even the menu seemed a bit shopworn.

I later spoke to a beverage director who has no interest in any East Village bars. He said, “I have no idea why Angel’s Share is mentioned in the same breath as PDT or Death & Co.”

I ordered a Cousin Mary, a cousin to the Bloody Mary, with cucumber, black pepper & garlic infused vodka, olive juice, onion vinegar, celery salt, and a garnish of olive & pearl onions.

In less time than it took me to write all that in my iPhone, the drink appeared. Actually, I had no more than glanced away for a few second. Clearly, it was pre-made, and poured from a pitcher. Not bad, but you can get a Bloody Mary anywhere.

Angel’s Share (6 Stuyvesant Street, east of Third Avenue, East Village)


Crif Dogs & Please Don’t Tell


The faux speakeasy cocktail bar is the most prominent development in the Manhattan drinking scene over the last five years.

Historically, of course, speakeasies were establishments that sold alcohol illegally. The modern speakeasy is legit, but usually concealed—as if it had something to hide. There is often a hidden or unlabeled door, and many of these places won’t admit you unless there is an open seat. There is generally a host at the door, as opposed to the usual bar, where you just saunter in and fend for yourself.

Last week, I went on an East Village “pub crawl” of three speakeasy-style cocktail bars that I had long wanted to try: Please Don’t Tell, Angel’s Share, and Death & Co. (The latter two are covered in subsequent posts.) That’s probably not the best way to experience them, assuming a normal alcohol tolerance, but I wasn’t sure when I’d find another opportunity.

It’s hard to imagine two more incongruous establishments operating under one roof, and having common ownership, than Crif Dogs and Please Don’t Tell. From the outside, all you see is the sign for “Crif Dogs,” with a giant hot dog bearing its insoucient catch phrase, “eat me.”

Inside, Crif Dogs is as divey-looking as you can imagine. Dimly lit, with a low ceiling and plain aluminum tables, it is an indoor hotdog stand. The name, by the way, is an inside joke. One of the owners (Brian Shebairo) once tried to say the name of his business partner, Chris Anista, while he had a hot dog in his mouth. It came out “Crif”.

Despite the Spartan surroundings, the owners aspire to serve the city’s best hot dog, and they just might have managed it. They deep-fry the wieners in fat, locking in flavor and giving the skin a satifying crunch.

The menu (click on the image, above left, for a larger version) offers seventeen varieties of hot dogs ($2.50–5.00), along with numerous optional toppings and side dishes. Beers ($3 or less) are the only alcoholic beverages.

You can make up your own hot dog with à la carte toppings, but I decided to order the server’s recommendation, the Tsunami, a bacon-wrapped hot dog with teriyaki, pineapple, and green onions.

Such odd combinations are typical of the menu, but if the rest of their zany creations are as good as this, then consider me hooked. I didn’t taste much teriyaki, but I loved the pineapple-bacon contrast, as well as the hot dog’s crunchy casing.

Please Don’t Tell (PDT), the adjoining cocktail lounge, does not open until 6:00 p.m. I had arrived at 5:45, which was about all the time it took to order and consume my hot dog.

In the meantime, the people-watching made a fascinating study. If you didn’t know about PDT, you’d wonder about the people walking in, looking just a bit lost, dressed as if they were going to a three-star restaurant. (The PDT website doesn’t even supply an address.)

The entrance is behind a “false” unlabeled antique phone booth in a corner of Crif Dogs. Open the door, and you feel a bit foolish. There is a white phone inside. It was out of order when I visited, but when it’s working you pick up, and a hostess answers. If there is space for you, a steel door opens in the back of the booth, and you’re admitted.

Reservations at the tables notoriously sell out by mid-afternoon (they are taken same-day only), but the bar is first-come, first-served. As I was there early, I was seated immediately. Later on (or so I hear), you cool your heels with a hot dog while you wait for someone to leave, as standees aren’t admitted.

A more pronounced contrast to Crif Dogs could not be imagined. The bar is a gorgeous space. The booths and bar stools are plush and comfortable. The bartenders are solicitous, smartly dressed, and work with surgical precision. Cocktails are served with ice cubes the size of a fist—keeping the booze cold, without diluting it.

The menu lists a couple of dozen specialty cocktails, though you can also go off-book. But as this was my first visit, I stuck with the printed list.

The two cocktails I had are typical. A Benton’s Old Fashioned (bacon-infused bourbon, maple syrup, angostura bitters) had a deep smokey flavor. The Mariner (scotch whiskey, pineapple, citrus, and smoked cardamom syrup) offered a nice balance of citrus sweetness and the bitterness of the scotch.

The restroom has a long list of etiquette rules posted, which perhaps shows how hard it is to run a Serious Cocktail Bar in the East Village. For instance, “No PDA at PDT: hands on table, tongue inside your mouth.” Another warns customers not to try to hit on other patrons’ dates. I don’t recall any other bar that found it necessary to point these things out.

They serve food here too—mostly hot dogs, though different recipes than those offered on the Crif Dogs menu. One is named for David Chang (wrapped in bacon and smothered in a kimchee puree); another for WD~50 chef Wylie Dufresne. There’s also a cheeseburger, and what appeared to be the most popular offering, tater tots.

These offerings come from the Crif Dogs kitchen. When the food is ready, a low buzzer rings, and the bartender opens a small metal door, with a pass-through direct to the Crif Dogs side of the house.

In some ways, this minimal menu doesn’t seem equal to the surroundings , but I admit my curiosity to try any hot dog named after Wylie Dufresne. However, I’d already had one next door, so that will have to await another visit.

This is a relaxing place. Had I not been alone, I would probably have stayed longer. Since hitting on other guys’ dates is a no-no, I’ll have to bring my own next time.

Crif Dogs & Please Don’t Tell (113 St. Marks Place between First Avenue & Avenue A, East Village)


Raines Law Room

I stopped by the Raines Law Room the other night. This is the new Flatiron speakeasy-themed cocktail lounge that can’t buy any love, because speakeasies are just so last year. Or so the cocktailians say.

My own theory is that the theme is outdated only when the customers stop visiting, and Raines doesn’t have that problem. They were already about half-full at 6:00 p.m. on Friday night, and pretty close to fully committed an hour later.

The speakeasy motif is everywhere you look. The storefront (a former antique store) is unlabeled, and there’s no phone number nor reservations taken. You ring a doorbell to gain admission. (If they’re full, the host takes your cellphone number, and you cool your heels somewhere else till he calls.) The “bar” is an upscale kitchen counter—as if this were somebody’s basement, and the “lounge” their living room.

The main room is a plush, pretty space. As I was alone, the host gave me the option of “visiting the kitchen,” without mentioning there was nowhere to sit. No matter. I chatted up the bartenders and had a couple of cocktails ($13 ea.), rye and bourbon based, with balanced, forward flavors.

Some of the modern cocktail ritual is just a gimmick (hand-crushing the ice—can anyone really tell?), but they’re doing a good job here. The place could use some food. The only option offered is a $15 plate of miscellaneous munchies (cheese, sliced meat, olives). They ought to be able to improve on that.

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, “Raines Law” refers not to a school for attorneys, but to an 1896 prohibition-like law that restricted alcohol sales in New York. So drink up and enjoy.

Raines Law Room (48 W. 17th St. between Fifth & Sixth Avenues, Flatiron District)


Pegu Club

peguclub_outside.jpg peguclub_inside.jpg

I’m a newcomer to the cocktail revolution. The timing and temperament of my dining habits are such that I’m more likely to have a sit-down meal with wine than to have a liquid dinner at a bar. But the craft and care that goes into the better cocktail menus has started to get my attention, if belatedly.

Pegu Club, which turns 3 in August, is practically the senior citizen of the post-modern cocktail circuit. It “hides in plain sight,” like many places in the genre—in this case, behind a barely labeled red door on Houston Street. No one who casually walks by would realize it’s a bar. Even those who are looking for Pegu Club sometimes have trouble finding it.

The bar is named for a nineteenth-century British officers’ club in Burma, and one can just detect a bit of the fin-de-siècle elegance they were aiming for. It’s a large, comfortable, and beautifully decorated space, with plush table seating and comfortable bar stools.

peguclub01a.jpg peguclub01b.jpg
Left: French Pearl; Right: Poquito Picante

Pegu Club takes its ingredients seriously, with house-made infusions, shots carefully measured, and sodas poured from fresh bottles. I tried three of them (all $12), starting with the Little Italy, a Manhattan variant made with an Italian bitter called Cynar (“CHEE-nar”). The bartender actually took a sideways glance at me as I took my first sip, to see if I’d like it as much as he predicted. I’d imagine he was pleased with the broad smile on my face. I also loved the French Pearl, made with gin, pernod, muddled mint, lime juice, and simple syrup.

I wasn’t as pleased with the Poquito Picante, which didn’t live up to the promise of “just a little bit of heat.” The jalapeño floating on top was merely decorative. The other ingredients, cilantro, cucumber, gin, cointreau and lemon juice, made a bland impression.

I wonder if Pegu Club is leaning too much on the menu it opened with, and if the restless inventiveness of the city’s better cocktail chefs is still present here. The same handful of ingredients recur in many of the drinks—for instance, five of them include mint; five have lemon juice. That’s a lot of repetition on a short menu. I didn’t run out of choices, but I don’t know if there’s enough variety to justify many repeat visits.

That said, there’s still plenty more that I’d like to come back and try.

peguclub02a.jpg peguclub02b.jpg

There’s food here, too. There’s a beverage recommendation for each item on the brief food menu, but in a number of cases there was no such item on the cocktail menu. You’d think they could clear that up.

The smoked trout deviled eggs ($10) have been on the menu since the beginning (Frank Bruni raved about them). In a word: wow! The little flecks of trout have a smoky taste almost like bacon, which nicely complements the curry mayonaise on the eggs. I didn’t quite get the point of chopsticks as a serving utensil, as the eggs were far too slippery to pick up that way. I used my hands.

A vegetarian spring roll ($12) was much more bland, but it was a decent enough snack.

The service was excellent, but in fairness I came quite early in the evening—I was the first customer, in fact—so I can’t attest to what it’s like when they fill up.

I’m only just beginning my journey through the city’s great cocktail places, but I doubt that there are many as comfortable as Pegu Club, and many of the drinks here are already modern classics.

Pegu Club (77 W. Houston St. between West Broadway & Wooster St., SoHo)

Food: *
Drinks: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **