Shhh, don't tell anyone, but some bars in Orange County are meant to be secret affairs. We're talking no signs out front letting you know of their existence, hidden entrances where you least expect them and nightly passwords procured via the most roundabout of ways.
Once inside these clandestine watering holes (you good detective, you), the lights get dimmer, the conversations soften and the drink menus feature a range of bespoke cocktails — some classic, some updated, but always at a quality well above the dive-bar norm. The decor is meant to whisk you back in time, to when alcohol was illegal and booze was consumed hush-hush in back rooms during the 13-year so-called noble experiment of Prohibition.
We're glad that time is over, but to rekindle that spirit (and to drink some while we're at it) here are the four Orange County speakeasies operating in this grand retro tradition.
Orange County's original speakeasy introduced us to the genre.
First off, Leonard Chan's Blind Rabbit is extra super hidden. You could dine at Anaheim's Packing House a dozen times before realizing that tipsy imbibers are exiting some dark room from the Disneyland-looking fake boxes piled high against an interior wall near the center of the modern food hall.
It may take you even longer to notice that giggly people who told their reservation info to a nonchalant woman with an iPad are tugging on a bronze rabbit amid a wall of sake barrels on the other side to enter it.
A list of rules comes with the territory, including a dress code, a 90-minute time limit and a request that you sit down in your seat and "speak easy." Order drinks from the well-crafted rotation of smashes, fizzes, collins and sours (check out the seasonal specials like Tiki drinks and smoking whatevers) and wash it all down with fancy food — from bone marrow to rabbit gravy poutine — which is cooked upstairs in the Iron Press kitchen and lowered into the speakeasy via dumbwaiter. Reservations can be easily made online.
For one Friday a month, a former storage room on the second floor of the recently renovated upscale Five Crowns steakhouse in Corona del Mar becomes Orange County's only absinthe bar — and the region's most secretive speakeasy.
The email address that will net you a reservation to this experience is not published anywhere (it is recommended that you get it from someone who has already attended or through slyly asking a Five Crowns or SideDoor employee about what goes on upstairs), and once you net an entrance time, the night's password still needs to be located (it's hiding somewhere in a secluded spot along the perimeter of the nearly 100-year-old, British-looking country cottage).
Find it and you'll be whisked upstairs and given a table with its own vintage absinthe drip in the center, meaning that in addition to a server who can bring you classic cocktails, wine and food from a limited kitchen menu, the house absinthe expert will also stop by to tell you all about the Poppy Club's selection of the historic anise liquor — which until 2007 was illegal in the U.S.
(On a recent visit, he recommended the powerful and complex Vieux Pontarlier-Verte from France for the table's whiskey drinkers and the more subdued Butterfly-Verte from Switzerland for the vodka fans.)
Then he'll bring out the traditional sugar cube, set up the slatted spoon over the cup of absinthe and let it drip.
As the hip-hop-blaring brother of the cool punk-rock dive bar, Pie Society is by far the most casual speakeasy on this list.
In fact, the only thing that keeps it from just being another millennial-appealing neighborhood drinking establishment with above-average spirits and creative cocktails is its unannounced location in the back of Pitfire Artisan Pizza in Costa Mesa.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Pie Society is located in the back of Pieology in Costa Mesa. It is located in the back of Pitfire Artisan Pizza in Costa Mesa.
No reservations are needed to get into Pie Society, though. Just park in the back of the custom pizza joint and walk toward what looks like it should be the trash can storage area. That's the patio. Keep walking through it to find the bar, built to resemble a 1950s kitchen with street art on the walls and usually staffed by a pair of friendly ladies surrounded by canisters of fresh fruits and herbs for drink-making.
The offerings vary seasonally and are always cleverly themed. The latest lineup is presented like a TV guide with cocktails separated into "TV-G" (sweet drinks), "TV-PG13" (medium boozy) and "TV-MA" (spirit forward), but of course you can order whatever you fancy, even if you're in the mood for a good old-fashioned beer and a shot.
Despite the lax entry rules, the place remains pretty mellow most nights. It is frequented mostly by groups of friends who prefer to spread out with a board game from the corner supply or inhale a pizza brought over from next door.
Before you go thinking that all the bars named after blind animals means the county's mammals are having vision issues, it's worth noting that speakeasies were also called "blind pigs" or blind tigers" back in the day.
But as for how the Blind Pig inside the Saint Marc at the new Pacific City development in Huntington Beach wound up with the same name as the not-so-hidden 4-year-old gastropub in Rancho Santa Margarita is a mystery. Yet, there it is — once you make your reservation through Open Table, walk all the way to the back of the definition-defying restaurant/pub/cheese shop/bacon bar in which it's housed, and pull open the bookshelf near the bathrooms — a giant hard-of-seeing pig painted on the wall to let you know you've arrived.
A single bartender makes this 15-seat room his domain each night, keeping you far away from the chaos of Main Street's summer madness. Instead of a menu, he's got a leather-bound novel of spirits and cocktails for you to try. Instead of a traditional bar, he's got a vintage secretary in one corner that folds out to create a flat surface where he can scoop ice and shake drinks. And instead of only allowing you to buy one drink at a time, he can offer you bottle service, which is surprisingly affordable when you consider the fact that the price includes any and all drinks made with said bottle (he'll also save your leftovers in a locker for you until your next visit).
A so-bizarre-it-works Spam-themed food menu is available as well, but you'll probably just want to sip slow, linger long and be grateful for the only quiet place to drink near the water in Huntington Beach.