The Speakeasy Comes to Suburbia

What happens when the vestiges of the urban avant-garde start to sprawl? Jordana Rothman on meeting the speakeasy in suburbia, 15 years later.

Sprawl. It’s the term we use to describe what happens when people migrate away from the cities and into the suburbs. Sprawl is what begat bedroom communities, commuter rails and the anti-culture of parts of Long Island and New Jersey. Sprawl is why I grew up in the Garden State, even though both of my parents were born in Queens.

But human beings are not the only things subject to sprawl. Cultural trends tend to form in the cities too, saturating the market before dribbling out to the rest of the country. Forgive the reference, but there’s a scene in The Devil Wears Prada in which a fashion editrix does a tidy job explaining this trickle-down trajectory via couture: from the runways to the department stores to big-box clearance bins. It happens in food and drink, too. There’s a reason why the website for Tex-Mex giant Chili’s now tells the story of its pickles and “craft lettuce,” years after artisanal canning and locavorism first became zeitgeist in influential dining towns. Then think of the tiki spike of midcentury America—a trend that first thrived in Los Angeles in the 1930s then crept into the suburbs, where cheap gimmicks replaced the escapist camp and glamour Don the Beachcomber had cultivated in Hollywood.

Lately it seems the neo-speakeasy is experiencing a similar arc. You can’t walk a country mile in America these days without tripping over a new 1920s-fetish cocktail bar, even though the movement has begun to lose steam in cities like New York and San Francisco. It took 15 years for the trend to traverse the 28 miles separating my own hometown from Manhattan. But when a speakeasy landed in Montville, New Jersey, earlier this year, I heard the bell toll.

It’s a funny thing to witness both the birth of a trend and the completion of its slow, strange orbit around the sun. I remember when Milk and Honey opened in New York City on New Year’s Eve in 1999 with its unmarked door and unlisted phone number. And I remember when PDT came along a few years later, with its entrance secreted behind a vintage phone booth. These were some of the first cocktail bars to nod to the sotto voce traditions of Prohibition-era speakeasies, but they would certainly not be the last.

Over the next decade Volstead nostalgia became a nightlife cliche, with seemingly every new bar insisting on its own banal barrier to entry — passwords, handshakes, mystifying buzzer systems, ever-cheekier passageways, cryptic reservation policies. Some copycats were more slavish than others: A bar named PDT opened in Mumbai, pirating not just the original’s name but also its phone booth conceit. At Bodega in Miami the phone booth became a port-a-potty door, with the bar further obfuscated behind a hallway of urinals. At a certain point, it’s too late, too mild to say that an idea has jumped the shark. It might be better to say that the shark is now performing jumping tricks at Sea World, in front of bleachers full of fanny packs.

The only bars were a few depressing pubs on the outskirts, where the townies were said to gather to guzzle watery beer and make passes at each other’s wives. We were people who shopped at malls. Who ate chicken fingers at chain restaurants. Who drank Diet Coke and Malibu rum. The Montville of my memory isn’t the sort of place that would have any use for a speakeasy, but in January 2015, the speakeasy, nonetheless, arrived in Montville.

Meanwhile, back in the source cities, the cloak-and-dagger posturing has begun to fall out of fashion as craft cocktails grow more ubiquitous and democratic. Milk and Honey has since relocated and closed, with hazy promises of a resurrection. Now we have easy-going spots that just happen to serve great drinks, like Trick Dog in San Francisco or Long Island Bar in Brooklyn. We have bars that exalt ’70s kitsch rather than the self-seriousness of the ’20s, like Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in Los Angeles. And we have nouveau dive bars like Mother’s Ruin or 151 in Manhattan. If you’ve been paying attention while drinking in any of these cities, you’ve probably noticed the tide turning. I certainly have. But just when I thought we’d all finally shaken out our finger waves, packed up our knee rouge and left the West Egg decadence in our rear view, I was reminded: sprawl.

You might know Montville, my hometown, from the foibles of its most famous resident, Real Housewife Teresa Giudice. But I don’t remember it as a particularly spangly place to grow up. My house was down the street from an 1896 cider mill where I’d sometimes buy eggs for my mother and sweet sticks of honey. The only bars were a few depressing pubs on the outskirts, where the townies were said to gather to guzzle watery beer and make passes at each other’s wives. We were people who shopped at malls. Who ate chicken fingers at chain restaurants. Who drank Diet Coke and Malibu rum. The Montville of my memory isn’t the sort of place that would have any use for a speakeasy, but in January 2015, the speakeasy, nonetheless, arrived in Montville.

Running into an old trend on the back end can be like seeing a long-lost friend: You observe the way the years have left their mark; you search for familiar things in the contours of their face; you fall into old, comfortable rhythms, but it all feels just a little bit awkward. That’s how it felt when I visited Thirty3, the speakeasy beneath Montville’s new Rails Steakhouse during a recent visit with my parents. The door was embedded in a faux bookcase, but—having no pragmatic need to throw Bureau agents off the scent or dodge blunt-force irony—it also read “SPEAKEASY” in giant letters. Tilt a copy of The Jack of Spies to get inside, and it’s all leather club chairs and waitresses in chintzy red flapper costumes. But hey, there’s a true Aviation on the menu, and a Sazerac. And behind the bar there is actual citrus destined for an actual juicer and bartenders giving Boston shakers a proper what-for.

It was disorienting to see these touchstones of craft bartending in my hometown, a place that had felt to me so immune to the culture percolating across the Hudson. I felt weirdly indignant about it too, like one of those hateful people who tells you the book was better than the movie, or that they saw that band you like back when they were still doing open mic nights. Maybe I panicked to think that if such a thing could work in Montville, then perhaps the distance between my life in New York and the life I left behind after high school wasn’t all that great. That the lines were beginning to blur, and the cultural superiority I used to protect myself against the long, tanned arm of New Jersey was flimsy shelter. But probably, I was just being an asshole. Better drinking is a rising tide, after all, and it’s a good thing wherever it happens—on a coveted barstool in Manhattan or at a cheesy speakeasy in New Jersey. And it’s a good thing whenever it happens too, on the bleeding edge or a decade and a half behind the times.

I suppose when people sprawl into the suburbs they bring along a little bit of the cities they left behind too—the way plant seeds hitchhike on pant legs to disperse themselves in distant fields. But there’s an odd sort of comfort in seeing an idea discarded by cities find new life in less cynical precincts. After all, tiki culture survived its decades in retirement, cycling back into prominence over the past few years. Maybe the old-timey stagecraft just needs a few seasons on the bench before we all come back around.

Jordana Rothman is a veteran of Time Out New York, where she held the reins as the magazine’s Food & Drink editor for six years. She’s a respected member of the national food writing community and a frequent contributor to print and digital publications such as Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, New York magazine, Cherry Bombe, Complex, MadFeed, Grub Street and Conde Nast Traveler, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.

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