Little peephole in the door, is there one great New York speakeasy…or more?
The trouble with chronicling experiences is that first you have to experience them and then you have to chronicle them, and all that experiencing takes time and energy. As a result, the chronicles have become backlogged like planes stacked up at Kennedy. We are now happily ensconced in a secluded cabin that I found on Craigslist for $75 a night nestled next to Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The lake jiggles outside my window, there’s a fire in the fireplace, there’s a glass of perky, snappy Finger Lakes Riesling close by, and I will now attempt to land some planes.
Where to begin?
Let’s start with speakeasies.
As you may remember, a few weeks ago I sent a begging note to the highly exclusive restaurant in the East Village that doesn’t post its phone number or address, and for whom a reservation is only available by invitation. I was able to score an invitation by rolling over like a submissive puppy and begging the nice people to take us in. I will now reveal the restaurant in question – it’s called the Bohemian.
Janine and I were joined by our daughter Maggie, now a seasoned college student of five weeks. Bless her sweet little heart, our child is among the world’s most adventurous eaters. The Bohemian is, of all things, a Japanese speakeasy. You enter through an unmarked door that takes you down a hallway that leads to another door at which point you ring a bell, offer your name, and gain admittance.
Inside is a restaurant of seven or eight low slung mid-century modern tables and chairs that resembles not so much a restaurant but the living room set of the Dick Van Dyke show.
The Bohemian offers a tasting menu that qualifies as a deep bargain in New York. For $55, you get at least five courses (a few might have escaped my memory) of clever, delicious food made from pristine ingredients. We had rice croquettes topped with the smoothest, sweetest uni I’ve ever tasted. There was a glorious wagyu sashimi, a roasted branzino served on a bed of fall vegetables, a choice of a wagyu slider or a sashimi donburi, and a yuzu panna cotta for dessert. Sane people would have been content with that, but we gilded the lily by adding mac and cheese and foie gras soba from the ala carte menu. I have to say the foie gras soba made me weep.
Now for the big admission. Any idiot who has rudimentary facility with this fantastic new search engine called Google could figure out the phone number and address of Bohemian. But I didn’t care. I enjoyed the game of it, and you will too.
Speakeasies became something of a theme for us during our visit.
Our friend (and shmabulous playright) Marty Casella recommended that we check out Dollhouse Speakeasy, an immersive theatre-ish experience that is put on in a real former speakeasy (so they say) on the Lower East Side.
Whereas Sleep No More is the immersive theatre experience with a pedigree and huge production values, Dollhouse Speakeasy has the scent of a handmade, roll-your-own enterprise. Think one of those murder mystery evenings that they put on at Kiwanis clubs and Elks lodges everywhere, except this one takes place in what appears to be an actual speakeasy in New York City (on most nights, it’s called The Back Room, and you should go). To get in, you whisper the password (“icepick”) to a cop in twenties dress who leads you down an alley through a half-sized door into a bar where cocktails are served in teacups. There’s a jazz band with a banjo, a bass, a clarinet, a drummer, and a lady singer. There’s a bit of burlesque, a bit of shouting, people get killed, actors emote, and you do a fair amount of drinking. You got something better to do than this?
This appears to be a labor of love, which is code for nobody gets paid. The performers come from hither and yon. The actor playing Dutch Schultz told me afterward that for the past four years he’s been driving down from New Hampshire, where he runs a radio station. One of the performers was a longtime fan pressed into service that night to play a character on trial for manslaughter. But no matter. It is all extremely good fun, and very speakeasy-ish, complete with wide pinstripes and chewy Bronx accents. Just go.
The third leg of the speakeasy stool was the one that turned us away. (Can one be turned away by a leg of a stool? Um, I guess so, because we were.) It’s called PDT (for Please Don’t Tell), and you gain access by passing through a phone booth located in a hot dog joint called Crif Dogs on St. Marks Place.
Sadly, we did not have a reservation and although our deeply charming friend John did his best to cajole the bar’s sour sentry, the magical door would not open. We were forced to decamp to our plan B, a cocktail emporium called Death & Co., which served $14 elixirs that made you forget the price, and everything else. I think I had a rye and smoked geranium highball, or was it a bourbon with nutmeg extract and an edelweiss garnish in a tulip glass? Who cares? We made it past the doorman and into our cozy little booth, and all was right with the world.
Finally, a bit about the un-speakeasy, the Gramercy Tavern. This restaurant is run by one of New York’s great restauranteurs, Danny Meyer.
You don’t need to call first to dine in the front room, and we waltzed in last Tuesday night without a reservation, or an invitation, or the secret password, and we were led to a lovely table in the middle of a bustling room and served a crazy good meal with the kind of service that any place in the city would be lucky to pull off. Return from the restroom and your napkin has been lovingly refolded and placed in front of you. You will never suffer from dehydration, or for that matter, hunger. The waiter was more than happy to synchronize Janine’s ala carte selections with my journey through the tasting menu. I had mentioned in passing to the hostess that we were celebrating our anniversary and that we had been to the Gramercy on our honeymoon 24 years before, and sure enough, an anniversary dessert shows up on our table to cap a lovely meal. There was also my now-favorite cocktail – a gin and IPA concoction which solved the very real problem of whether to have a beer or a martini. We also had roasted fish, seared duck breast, a shaved zucchini salad, and other stuff I can’t remember, but I remember it was good.
I suspect the hipsters are repelled by such earnest good manners and loving service, but Danny Meyer will get no complaint from me for making sure that kindness prevails in his hospitality empire. Even the service at Shake Shack, his fast food burger joint, is good.
Don’t make me pick which moment I loved the most, although on my deathbed, as I slip into the next world, the words “foie gras soba” may issue from my dying lips. Unless it’s “icepick”.