Speakeasies have been around since the Prohibition Era, when the illicit bars sprung up to provide tipplers a safe haven. Their popularity has lasted long after booze was legalized, however, and they have become a staple of urban nightlife. Of course, the modern speakeasy isn’t illegal—instead, the cachet lies in an air of secrecy or exclusivity. Take a cue from these spots who benefit when guests spill the beans, and consider creating a secret menu of your own. Don’t worry, mum’s the word.
Take Sidepiece, the speakeasy-style bar “hidden” behind Hell’s Kitchen restaurant the Meatball Shop. Sidepiece has its own bar program, consisting of drinks like their Hi-Ballz, ever-changing large-format cocktails served in a glass shaped like a plastic bag. And while Sidepiece isn’t exactly a secret, you do have to be in the know to discover it. “People find out about Sidepiece many different ways, but word of mouth is definitely number one,” says marketing director Natasha Miller. “We have a couple of fun moments leading up to the room, like our neon grinder with a pig, and a completely custom diorama. It looks like a normal dollhouse at first glance, but once you look through the windows, a total dreamscape farmland is revealed.” Miller says that Sidepiece is fun for both guests and staff. “It definitely gives us the opportunity to come up with some kooky food and beverage concepts. Our menu has always featured a large format cocktail for two,” she says. “It always surprises our guests when we tell them about Sidepiece because it’s like we’re sharing a fun secret, and I think that definitely adds dimension to our already fun brand.”c
Similarly, in Vegas, where just about everything is on full, neon-lit display, The Laundry Room remains a relatively well-kept secret. The speakeasy-style bar is located in the Commonwealth, a swanky bar known for its rooftop scene. But guests who obtain a special phone number can text their way through a camouflaged entrance into the Laundry Room. But they’d better behave—once inside, guests are given strict rules, including no photos (so you can’t “do it for the Instagram”), no phone conversations, and, blessedly, no PDA.
“The Laundry Room has been open since 2012 and continues to be a hidden gem due to the location and exclusive admission process,” says Anthony Patridge, who tends the 20-seat bar. “To keep things fresh, we continually update the speakeasy’s menu, and recently launched a new menu with a variety of labor-intensive cocktails.” These cocktails run the gamut, from the Pom-Poms, a fruity blend of pineapple, lime and pomegranate juices, light rum and Anisette liqueur, to the Hot Poker, a spicy mix of orgeat syrup, lemon juice, mezcal and tequila, topped with habanero chili.
While these sort of “secret” bars exist in many major cities, more and more bars and restaurants are instead turning to secret, or exclusive, bar menus as a way to cash in on the speakeasy trend. Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just debuted a secret cocktail program called “Walk Up the Wall of China,” a limited-time menu of 25 Asian-influenced cocktails that can only be accessed by exclusive invite. Designed as a challenge of sorts for cocktail enthusiasts, once accessed, patrons start with a shot of Baijiu, a Chinese grain alcohol spirit.
The brainchild of beverage director Vinicius Stein, the menu exists as a limited number of invitations that bartenders and managers can pass to guests they deem worthy. “The program is being developed in order to create a regular bar clientele that will want to experiment with different flavors in cocktails,” says Stein. “The neighborhood already has a few bars that dedicate themselves to beers, wines and whiskeys, so to set us apart from everybody else we came up with the idea of making a great cocktail bar for our venue. There is nothing else of the kind around the neighborhood. The program will benefit our venue in terms of having a full bar on the considered busy nights of the industry and off nights as well.” Lucky guests who receive the invite will get to ring a gong as part of their initiation—which will no doubt pique the interest of other guests. Unfortunately, their chances at getting a crack at the gong, and the menu, are slim, which adds to the intrigue of the program. “Once a person is a member, he or she will have to run through a few steps before being able to receive one extra invitation,” says Stein. “It will be an exclusive menu for a select few candidates; we want to have the control of how many guests are included in the program.” So exclusive, in fact, that bartenders aren’t even allowed to talk about it with patrons who haven’t scored an invite.
“It always surprises our guests when we tell them about Sidepiece because it’s like we’re sharing a fun secret, and I think that definitely adds dimension to our already fun brand.” -Natasha Miller
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In Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, Tiki bar Hula’s Modern Tiki offers a secret craft cocktail menu of their own, the “Uku Nui,” which translates to “premium” in Hawaiian. Offered only in the bar area, Uku Nui features a host of unique cocktails and a secret rum flight tasting menu. “We thought it would be fun to have a special menu for the regulars and cocktail aficionados that would just be an experience you could have at the bar,” says owner M. Dana Mule.
“I’ve always loved places where the bartenders and have that intimate relationship with the guests.” To that end, not every guest has access to the menu—they have to earn it. “As the bartender gets to know a guest, he or she will usually present it when the moment is right,” Mule explains. When asked if he worries about it becoming too well-known, he half-jokes, “When that happens, we’ll change it, or expand it, or make people perform ‘stupid people tricks’ to get access to it.”
Also in Phoenix, bistro and whiskey bar The Gladly boasts a secret hand-sell whiskey list, along with off-menu tastings for those in-the-know. As with Hula’s, says owner Andrew Fritz, patrons only gain access to this menu—named “The Whiskey Thieves”—through conversation with the bartenders, or someone who has already sampled it. “It just happens through word of mouth. Or, if you happen to be sitting at the bar next to someone who asks for the Whiskey Thieves menu,” Fritz says. “It allows us to offer new and inspiring products for our many regulars. We have guests who have worked their way through our entire printed whiskey list, so they’re now on the hunt.”
Austin’s Péché is a contemporary French restaurant and cocktail destination that specializes in absinthe. As such, they offer a secret menu that features the botanical spirit, said to have hallucinogenic properties. “We have been open for nearly 10 years, so we have a lot of secrets that need to see the light of day,” says owner Rob Pate. “It was created with this in mind.” As a nod to that sense of secrecy, Péché’s secret menu is also accessed only through word of mouth. Or, as Pate jokes, through “the Carol Burnett ear pull.” “We share word of this menu with regulars and new guests alike who prove themselves to have an adventurous palate. While many people will come in and try absinthe, given the bar’s expansive selection of them, those who show a true appreciation for it, as well as some of the bar’s other more advanced cocktails, are clued in on the secret menu.” And, he warns, they are definitely more advanced.
“The secret bar menu stays under the radar because the drinks on it feature offer some challenging flavor profiles, especially for a less experienced drinker.”
The trend isn’t limited to cocktails; wine can also get the super-secret treatment, as in the “secret” wine list at Boston steakhouse Abe & Louie’s. “The word ‘secret’ sounds so mysterious,” hedges sommelier Matt White. “It’s more like an unlisted, carefully curated selection of wines from elite producers and from special vintages. Occasionally an unknown affordable wine will be there that we somms get to geek out on.” And while there’s “no secret password or knock required,” he says, guests do have to ask about the list to taste these wines. “The real benefit to this I have found is that it provides a personalized experience,” White says. “Some wines are difficult to get and sell out very quickly, and we will occasionally set those bottles aside for certain guests.” As for fear of overexposure, he says, “By its very nature not many people know about it, and it’s always changing.”