Eight modern speak-easy bars in L.A., for that insider feeling


The Modern Speak-easy

The inside of the Tunnel Bar in Sherman Oaks.
Tunnel Bar in Sherman Oaks (acuna-hansen)

82 years after the end of Prohibition, the speakeasy lives on, but upgraded for the 21st century. Craft cocktails, bartenders slinging drinks with mezcal and backyard fruit — and secret doors.

Tunnel Bar in Sherman Oaks (acuna-hansen)

These days, you have to #dobetter if you want to fill a bar — you can't just serve a dirty martini. Or, rather, you can serve the same dirty martini to both the 60-year-old crowd and to your average 23-year-old, but you need to serve it in a dimly lighted space, ideally with a secret entrance. Thus the speak-easy, a kind of establishment that makes classic bar patrons feel like they're watching a Ken Burns documentary and the current serial L.A. nightlifers feel like they've got a new reason to go out for drinks.

The present-day version of the Prohibition-era bar features craft cocktails and a distinct sense of belonging to a clique. Kind of like the Freemasons, with booze.

Chances are, if you're in an L.A. speak-easy, it belongs to Mark and Jonnie Houston, owners of Houston Hospitality. The twin brothers are behind Good Times at Davey Wayne's, La Descarga, Dirty Laundry, No Vacancy, Pour Vous, Harvard & Stone and Piano Bar.

"A speakeasy is a secret passage to an experience, and we're showcasing the evolution of that concept," said the pair in an email. "We hope that our spaces provide an escape for our guests, a break from their every day lives."

If you're looking to escape your everyday humdrum, these eight modern speak-easies are a good place to start.

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Don't be discouraged by the functioning barbershop in front at the Blind Barber. Ignore the buzzing of the shavers and the snips of the scissors, and keep walking through the door in the back, which leads to the bar. There you'll find bartenders slinging drinks called Mr. Alexander, made with Mezcal Joven, blood orange, lime, jalapeño-infused Cointreau and amber agave. If you get hungry, chef Ted Hirsh is making more than 10 types of grilled cheese sandwiches, all served with a side of kale salad. Yes, kale salad. 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Saturdays.

Walk down a dark alley and look for a man clad in black sitting on a stool at the top of an even darker stairway. "I'm looking for Dirty Laundry," you say. The man in black will say, "You've come to the right place." A flight of stairs down and you've come to Dirty Laundry, which greets guests with a red sign that simply reads "sex." Past the main bar, and the bartenders in suspenders, there's one small room with seating, followed by another, where a nearly albino singer (dressed in white) croons for a pacing crowd of budding rock musicians and their supermodel girlfriends. 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.

Browse vintage ties, hats and stickers at a garage sale, then walk through a refrigerator door into a psychedelic, '70s basement party where you'll find Farrah Fawcett look-alikes sitting on vintage striped couches drinking mai tais. The Houston brothers named the bar after their father, the late David Wayne Houston, and their family photos hang on the walls. Expect tiki drinks served in mugs that read "No. 1 dad" as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Cat Stevens fuel your dance party. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Mondays to Fridays, 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

La Descarga is a Cuban speak-easy, complete with a rum bar and cigar lounge. You enter through a clothes closet. Once down a winding staircase, you'll discover your very own slice of Old Havana. The place gets busy but never too packed. If you don't have a reservation, chances are you're not getting in. The ceiling looks as if it's peeling, and if you're not sitting with a drink, you're dancing. On the patio, you may or may not be smoking a hand-rolled cigar when you order another ice-cold mojito. 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.

To enter this bar, you'll need to do a little work: Choose the right doorknob, and you're in. Choose the wrong one, and you're left feeling a little embarrassed as you blindly pull and twist knobs on a wall full of vintage fixtures. If you're taking an especially long time, the doorman will drop a few hints. Once inside, you can grab one of the emerald green seats at the marble bar, transport yourself to a simpler time and order a classic Negroni or whiskey sour, both fashioned with care. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 4 p.m. to midnight Sundays.

No Vacancy is in an old Victorian home (formerly Janes House), just off Hollywood Boulevard. At the top of a dark staircase, you're presented with three doors. When you choose the right one, you're greeted by an attractive blond — the madam of the establishment. With no visible doorways, a secret entrance opens, and you enter a dimly lighted bar that may resemble your elderly aunt's house — but now occupied by well-dressed hipsters sipping vodka sodas. Some nights there's a burlesque show, others, tightrope walkers. The enclosed patio, with its fireplace, greenery and ample seating, may be packed with people smoking wilted cigarettes but really is worthy of a garden party. 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.

This Sherman Oaks bar is a speak-easy, but with oysters and a view of Ventura Boulevard from a private patio. After 10 p.m., there's a doorman standing outside the Tipple & Brine oyster bar, which is conveniently located downstairs. If he deems you worthy, the doorman will walk you through the back, up the stairs and through a heavy door into a dark room lined with plush leather booths, portraits of Johnny Ramone and Patti Smith — and a bar shaped like the entrance to a tunnel. Order an old-fashioned, order some oysters, then make your way onto the patio upstairs for a night under the stars. On your way back down, watch out for the life-size gorilla hanging out above the staircase. He'll sober you right up. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursdays to Saturdays.

213 Nightlife Group's bar is the original downtown speak-easy. No frills, just a door at the back of Cole's — your neighborhood French dip sandwich palace. Once through the door into a dimly lighted room, a man or woman with a clipboard decides your fate for the evening. If there's a free table or room at the bar, you're treated to bartenders in suspenders who hand-chip ice cubes and stir and shake drinks with the finesse of seasoned ballet dancers. If you don't know what you want, just tell your server or the bartender your liquor of choice and whether you like your drinks sweet or not, and they'll do the rest. 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.