The Modern Speakeasy: America’s Best Worst-Kept Secret
Speakeasies are open again and easier to find than ever.
Concert venues, breweries, and cocktail bars line the south side of downtown Phoenix, but the place to be on a Saturday night is an unassuming pizza shop on Van Buren Street. Ziggy’s Magic Pizza Shop is retro, yet understated, serving greasy New York-style slices on tissue paper and paper plates. It’s not a tourist attraction, an Insta-worthy spot, or a top pizza destination — and yet the line into the building extends well past its doors.
When you go to Ziggy’s on a weekend after 9 p.m., odds are you’re not lining up for the cash register. You’re looking for the walk-in freezer — or what looks like one, at least. Behind the metal door is the embodiment of the term retro: a dark pinball lounge lit up by a glowing disco floor and a rotating disco ball. There’s nothing subtle about it.
Stardust Pinbar is one of hundreds of modern-age speakeasies popping up around the world. Within walking distance, there’s Melinda’s Alley, Pigtails, and Sanctum. If you’re willing to drive, there’s Gin & Reel, 36 Below, yet another Pigtails, and more.
Speakeasies are appearing left and right, from San Francisco to New York, and even within countries that didn’t have a historical need for speakeasies. But in this age, they’re a little (read: a lot) different from the hidden bars of the Roaring Twenties. Speakeasies are on Instagram and even Google Maps. There’s no gamble to telling the secret, no directions left un-leaked. The passwords for entry might as well be “password.” When there’s social power to being first to know — and first to tell — sunken ships are a small consequence to face for loose lips.
A new drinking culture
When I spoke to a Scottish bartender back in 2015, he gave me an interesting perspective on American drinking culture: the Prohibition era inspired us to drink just to drink. There’s some truth to this. Mixers became widely popular during Prohibition because it masked the taste of whatever shoddy alcohol bar-goers had in hand. If you’ve ever been to a college house party, you know that aspect of illegal drinking culture definitely hasn’t gone away.
But for the 21+, the resurgence of speakeasies is introducing a brand new drinking culture. It’s one of cocktails and flair and FOMO-inducing bar crawls. Adults in the U.S. are drinking more now than before Prohibition, but it’s less about rebellious alcoholism and more about adventure.
New York’s now-defunct Milk & Honey is often hailed as the trendsetter behind the modern speakeasy boom. The Manhattan bar played jazz, had no signs, and used a secret, ever-changing phone number for reservations. And while Milk & Honey was modeled after Japanese-style bars, rather than American speakeasies, the “speakeasy” title stuck and helped cultivate a new breed of American indulgence.
America’s greatest export
As a rough estimate, there are over 200 speakeasies open in the U.S. alone. And the concept is now thriving in countries that never experienced a similar alcohol ban. From Mexico City and London to Berlin and Hong Kong, speakeasies are objectively a hit.
In many ways, the modern speakeasy is a marketing gimmick. It attracts customers with a sense of exclusivity and a minute-long hunt for an entrance (if a line doesn’t give it away). But walking through the doors of a not-so-secret bar lets global spirit enthusiasts drink in the stories of a bygone era. The ultimate prize: an experience to remember and social media bragging rights.
As FOMO makes an unwelcome comeback and to-go cocktails become a COVID-era fever dream, American-ish speakeasies are ready to rise once again.