William Grimes has a feature in the New York Times Dining section on the not-so-cutting-edge trend of the speakeasy-style bar. Grimes is a terrific writer, and his book Straight Up of On the Rocks is one of the greatest books about the history of the American cocktail ever written, so his illumination of the ways in which the modern speakeasies only resemble their Prohibition-era inspirations is well worth looking at.
Personally, I like a contemporary speakeasy—secret and often pretentious, but with delicious drinks that won't kill you. But curiously, the speakeasy concept never really caught on in San Francisco.
The nucleus of the speakeasy movement has long been New York, which is so rife with them these days that there's high probility that random, weathered doors in practically any derelict alley will open into a convivial bar serving complicated alcoholic libations. And the chances that the bartenders therein will be sporting outre moustaches, cuffs and vests are probably higher. The modern speakeasy movement started almost a decade ago with Milk and Honey, but has really caught fire in the last few years with places like PDT (hidden entrance through a phone booth in a hot dog restaurant) and Apoteke (entrance looks like an old Chinese restaurant, bartenders wear labcoats and act like 19th century pharmacists). And there are probably half a dozen more, many of which Grimes mentions in his article (even a new place called Rye--the nerve!). He also shows how the trend is slowly spreading to cities across the country.
Of course, we got our own speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch, back in the fall of 2006, before PDT but well after Milk and Honey, which was obviously the model for the place. (In fact, the liberal amount of inspiration B&B took from M&H evidently created some lasting acrimony between the two places.) And, no doubt about it, B&B is a great bar, to be experienced only after the thirsty customer acquires the password and a reservation to get in. It's got one of the most lovingly designed and coolest interiors of any bar or restaurant in the city. It's got talented bartenders, delicious drinks, and a great atmosphere. And it seems highly successful—busy to the point that the owners (one of whom, Brian Sheehy, is quoted in Grimes' piece) turned the adjoining Library room into a public bar (no password required on nights it's open) and built out a new space, Russell's Room.
Given the success of B&B and the general cool factor of the speakeasy, I'm surprised that we don't have even one more in SF. And the question is: Why?
I have a couple of ideas. One is financial. It seems harder to make money in SF than in New York. Maybe rents are a little higher. Most speakeasies are small. In NYC they charge $15 a drink and can stay open all night, which is how they make their money. That might not fly in SF. B&B does well because it's quite a big space. Another reason is need. NYC also has 10 times the people we do to fill its secret bars. With its vast population and its culture of going out every night, people crave something hidden and special. Here, we just don't seem to need that, instead happily crowding the unfurtive bars bars of Alembic, Romolo, Elixir, Cantina, and, yes, the original Rye. There's a certain pretension about the drinks, the moustaches and the sureptition of New York's speakeasies that we just have little use for here.
I'd love another quiet, shrouded bar or two here in SF—they add color and variety, but I don't see it happening any time soon. Send me some sort of dark, cryptic tip if you hear of anything.