Bar Design in the Post-Speakeasy Era

Over the last 15 years "speakeasy" has become synonymous with "cocktail bar." Now that the aesthetic has run its course, bar owners and designers are charged with redefining what the cocktail bar looks like. Christopher Ross on design in the post-speakeasy era.

When Milk & Honey, New York City’s first neo-speakeasy, closed and changed locations in 2013, it exited its legendary Lower East Side digs after 13 years of service with a kind of dignified world-weariness, having created a game it no longer wanted to play.

The trappings of the cocktail bar model that Milk & Honey inspired—the hidden entrance, the secret password or phone number, the dense, candlelit darkness, jazz softly playing, bartenders in suspenders—had become numbingly familiar. Now the cool bartenders were wearing T-shirts again, had tossed out Ella Fitzgerald in lieu of The Kinks and were opening joints that felt like casual, neighborhood bars in willful rebellion against the modern speakeasy, which over the previous decade had morphed from exception to rule.

The question that now loomed before the cocktail community was: What does the post-speakeasy cocktail bar look like? In many ways, the content of a bar dedicated to craft cocktails—what was on the menu—was easier to determine than its aesthetic style. One could even argue that the real value of the speakeasy trend was that it had functioned as a kind of Trojan horse, carrying within itself the seeds of the real revolution: fresh juices, boutique spirits, methodical technique, recipes rooted in the Golden Age of cocktails and deliberate hospitality.

“For those markets that don’t have a really elevated cocktail scene, it’s not a big surprise that you see the first successful cocktail bars being something like a speakeasy,” says Alexander Day, a partner at bar consulting firm Proprietors LLC, which opened Death & Co. But for a city more hip to the trend, it was no longer necessary for “cocktails” to be synonymous with “speakeasy,” giving bar owners the almost uncomfortable freedom of making an establishment primarily dedicated to mixing top-shelf drinks look however they wanted it to look.

Ironically, most of the endlessly repeated design standbys of the speakeasy rubric were innovated as a result of creative limitation. At Milk & Honey, owner Sasha Petraske’s measures of secrecy were largely meant to protect the bar from an overzealous landlord who didn’t want loud crowds—though it seems unlikely that he would have been perfectly unaware of the effect an unmarked bar and secret phone number would have on New York City’s culture of one-upmanship.

“I think the reason Milk & Honey was so dark was that you wouldn’t be able to see that it was actually held together by duct tape and a prayer,” says Joaquín Simó, a partner at Alchemy Consulting and owner and bartender at Pouring Ribbons in the East Village.

The trend caught on in New York and the rest of the States because the visual and atmospheric effect was, at least in the beginning, intoxicating. Antique light fixtures, wall moldings, stained wood, vintage mirrors, the smell of fresh-cut garnishes and Fats Waller crooning all evoked an older, more dapper era of drinking, with the disguised entryway lending the affair the thrill of the illicit. In reality, the hard-to-find door was the only thing the neo-speakeasy had in common with the historical speakeasy. In fact, the design cues of the modern speakeasy—places like Death & Co, the Varnish, PDT and The Violet Hour—came more from the elegant saloons and grand hotel bars of the 1890s.

You can almost think of the cocktail bar as, aesthetically, entering its modernist, subjectivist phase. No longer required to lean on the orthodoxy and homogeneity of the speakeasy rubric to signify to guests that it’s a home of top-notch cocktails, bar owners are using design as a way to express their own personal vision, tics, even eccentricities.

Facts aside, thanks to the conceit, an everyman bar could borrow the exclusivity of a private club. “Everyone wants to be the cool kid,” says Simó. “In New York, you’re in a city of nine million and you knew where the unmarked bar was that has only a few seats. You’re now cooler than the other nine million people. And once you’re inside, everyone looks better in the dark. You’re drinking these very small, very potent cocktails, you’re looking at your date, there’s flickering candles…who can’t get laid in that situation?”

But after the novelty wore off, it became more fashionable to sneer at the pretensions of the speakeasy than to know where to find the door. The punching bag of food and drink blogs, its influence on the wider popularization of the craft cocktail movement has been slightly lost. “The modern speakeasy moment was very necessary for bartenders and bartending in general to assert itself as a thing,” says Jennifer Colliau, bar manager at The Interval in San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation. “It was an aesthetic that made people understand that the cocktails were to be taken seriously.”

Now that that’s widely accepted, you can almost think of the cocktail bar as, aesthetically, entering its modernist, subjectivist phase. No longer required to lean on the orthodoxy and homogeneity of the speakeasy rubric to signify to guests that it’s a home of top-notch cocktails, bar owners are using design as a way to express their own personal vision, tics, even eccentricities.

Simó and his partners were among the first to deliberately take a pure cocktail bar concept in the opposite visual direction of the speakeasy with Pouring Ribbons. The East Village bar features a large, airy room, a bright color scheme and a half-moon window looking out over the street below that acts as the centerpiece of the bar. “We wanted a place that felt modern, not tied to any one period,” says Simó. “We wanted color. I was tired of the sepia-toned cocktail bar. And we didn’t want a place where guys were going to have arm garters and look like they stepped out of a Jerry Thomas cartoon.”

One upside of such new visions for the cocktail bar, according to Colliau, is that the old speakeasy model could occasionally feel slightly gendered. “Those very small, very dark, very masculine spaces don’t appeal to everyone,” she says. “It’s a generalization, but a lot of them do appeal more to men than to women. That’s a big business mistake.” Her own bar, The Interval, is an open, sunny affair with a bookish, technological edge: It features a massive library, a shifting light installation behind the counter, plans for a chalk-drawing robot and music courtesy of Long Now board member Brian Eno.

Designers are also drawing inspiration from other genres of watering holes. “With bars, it’s important to help the patron connect to the experience emotionally,” says Adam Farmerie, partner at design and architecture firm AvroKo, which is behind spots like Madam Geneva in New York and Lily & Bloom in Hong Kong. “With a restaurant, patrons understand how they’re supposed to experience it. But with bars you have to be more clever. While we don’t necessarily look to dive bars for inspiration, they emanate a natural, emotional energy and when we’re designing a new bar we try to recreate that visceral connection.”

Day and Proprietors LLC partner David Kaplan embraced that theory with their recently opened spot 151, a revamped and stylized version of the space’s previous occupant, a dive bar that Day and Kaplan used to frequent. The room, while dark and subterranean, feels more evocative of the 1970s than the 1890s, with a gold stone wall, red booths and a geometric mirror over the bar.

“One of our bartenders at 151 the other day said, people keep talking about 151 as the dive bar that has cocktails,” says Day. “Can we just call it a good bar?” The popularity of this approach has created a new subgenre of the cocktail bar, often referred to as the “neo-dive”: places like Mother’s Ruin or Dram that prove that consummate drink-making can coexist with more raucous, rough-and-tumble environments and a menu of more casual, cheaper cocktails. At the other end of the spectrum, a resurgence of interest in hotel bars has led to acclaimed spots like the NoMad, with its stunning, carved wood backbar, or New Orleans’ Bellocq, that recapture the grandeur of Golden Age establishments.

Likely, many of the trappings of the speakeasy will not be completely effaced from future projects. Brooklyn’s Tooker Alley, while retaining the focus on classic cocktails and a jazz soundtrack, is unmistakably stamped with owner Del Pedro’s obsessions, including bohemia, tramps and literature. And bars like Half Step in Austin combine a dimly lit interior with booths and a charming Texas back porch.

In the end, the most defining feature of the speakeasy—the trickery of the hidden door—is also the one most likely destined for the dustbin of history. “As we’ve grown secure in our craft, we’re able to look internally at who we are as people and integrate more into bars,” says Day. “If it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from a human being, then I don’t want to go. Authenticity is something you simply cannot fake.”