What’s the Point of Speakeasies in the Digital Age?

DisobeyArt / shutterstock
DisobeyArt / shutterstock

Angel’s Share, the Japanese bar in New York’s East Village that arguably kicked off the rebirth of speakeasies in America, opened in 1993. Mark Zuckerberg was just 9 years old, and Steve Jobs didn’t even work at Apple. Without a smartphone to look up the address or a social media platform to read up on the bar, drinkers had to actually discover Angel’s Share by word of mouth, or stumble upon it inside a second floor izakaya.

Another seven years passed before Sasha Petraske opened Milk & Honey, yet another seven more before Please Don’t Tell opened (just a few blocks from Angel’s Share), and another few years more until speakeasies entered pop culture as icons of sophisticated tippling. A lot has changed in the last 25 years, with Facebook, Instagram and Yelp “disrupting” the bar industry completely. While that shift has empowered drinkers to seek out quality establishments (and quality bars to make themselves known), it’s also completely undermined the entire idea of a secretive bar. Nothing is secret on the internet for long.

Yet, bar owners continue to open new speakeasies. One such bar, Mr. Cannon, opened earlier this year within the red brick alleyways of Manhattan’s historic Seaport. The bar channels the classic Prohibition style that characterizes a lot of modern speakeasies with dim lighting, worn leather furniture and an air of polished reserve. Meanwhile, out in L.A., Mark and Jonnie Houston, the twins behind Houston Hospitality, have opened a string of hidden bars since 2008, some resembling the archetypal speakeasy, and others—especially Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, which you enter by way of a refrigerator—look nothing like it. As these bars open, bartenders and owners grapple with digital cocktail culture, balancing the need for awareness and coverage with the desire for secrecy.

Social media puts secret bars in a tough spot. Many bars rely on platforms to get word out about new offerings and generate industry prestige. Plus, customers now expect to preview the bars they go to online and find new venues through digital buzz. Those avenues seem completely off limits for any bar proffering an incognito theme—but social media isn’t totally out of reach. Speakeasies just have to be smart about how they use it.

Indirect marketing allows bars to gain attention without promoting themselves directly and defeating the whole purpose of the secret bar. Before Mr. Cannon launched in earnest, the bar held a quiet “friends and family” event, inviting patrons of other Seaport venues and select guests to check out the bar before the rest of the public. Steve Cornwell, CMO of The Howard Hughes Corporation, which handled Mr. Cannon’s launch, says the guest list for the preview party included a number of social media influencers, who would do the bar’s dirty work of spreading news about the opening. While these influencers might engage in some good natured elusiveness, teasing followers with limited info about the exclusive and secret bar they attended, Cornwell explains that every post is a piece in the trail of breadcrumbs leading other drinkers to the space.  

Courtesy of Mr. Cannon

Mr. Cannon was intentionally designed to appeal to social media users. “We’ve created a space that is very social media friendly—from the décor to the craftiness of the cocktails,” Cornwell says. “Consumers want to share where they’re going, what they’re drinking, etc., and they want to make sure that they’re visiting spaces that are cool, chic and enticing. Those are typically the spots that are covered on social and digital media, and through that coverage, speakeasies can be highlighted, while still maintaining a level of secrecy and intimacy.” Walking into the bar, one may be greeted by a host in a double breasted jacket or an equally well-kempt bartender. Crystal glassware and plush decor immediately elevate any drink (or Instagram post). Even the bar’s mascot, Mr. Cannon himself, is a rather dapper cartoon warf mouse, the perfect encapsulation of the high-low aesthetic of a classy bar in a deserted alleyway. All of this is purpose-driven social media fodder.

Creating workarounds on social media was never an option for the Houston brothers. Jonnie doesn’t even use social media, and Mark is the first to admit he’s no expert. “We don’t do market research. We don’t know that every project will really blow away people. We just go with what we are inspired by, and we cross our fingers and hope people dig it,” Mark says.

The Houston brothers’ bars tend to open quietly. There’s no opening party, no announcement, no clues that opening day is any different from the day before. Instead, the brothers embrace “organic” growth. “We just open, and it’s dead for a couple days,” Mark says, adding that the quiet opening actually benefit them, allowing time to fine tune everything in the bar. He even takes pride in people who discover one of the speakeasies after several years. “How cool is it when something has been around for four or five years, and you’re just discovering it,” he says.

Mark waxes poetic about the days of payphones, when smart devices weren’t glued to the hands of every drinker and people were truly present in a bar together. Looking at the bars the brothers have opened—the easygoing 1970s vibes of Davey Wayne’s, the retro ‘80s pop stylings of Break Room 86, the Prohibition-era Cuban swagger of La Descarga—it’s clear they have a penchant for time periods before the digital revolution. Mark idolizes the divey, dingy bars of the ‘80s and ‘90s when Hollywood producers sat side by side with construction workers without any digital barriers between them.

Courtesy of Good Times at Davey Wayne's

These days, Wi-Fi outages are cause for panic, and fears of missed messages cause disorders like phantom vibration syndrome. Opposition to this tech addiction is at the core of the Houston bar ethos. Mark believes speakeasies aren’t a victim of the digital era—they’re the solution. Secret bars offer the one thing people really need from a bar: escape.

The hidden entrances to their speakeasies are portals, Mark explains, that disconnect drinkers from the outside world and let them unplug. “From that moment you should be able to feel a change, and if you embrace that, I feel like that sets the tone for what you’ll experience the rest of the night,” he says. “There’s an inner child in all of us just comes out. We channel that fantasy. It’s like an adult version of Disney.”

This sensation is impossible to capture on Instagram. Speakeasies not only harken back to a specific era of drinking, they revive an era of entertainment. They rekindle the romanticism of a night out.

As customers have become accustomed to this escapism, they’ve come to expect more from a bar than good drinks. Speakeasy fans have essentially agreed to trade the ability to preview their bar ahead of time for a superior drinking experience. Mr. Cannon beverage director and head bartender Chris Kearns sees this as an advantage. “Having a bar that takes a bit of research and exploration to find has the benefit of attracting clientele that really care about the experience they are going to get,” he says. But it’s also a challenge.

“Bars such as PDT set an incredibly high standard not only for speakeasy concepts, but bars in general,” Kearns explains. “Those venues really make us take the time to look at the details: What music are we playing? How can we go above and beyond for our customer?” That level of care applies to small innovations at Mr. Cannon as well, he adds. “Why can’t we take the drink that most bartenders have said they hate to make the most, the Mojito, and have it served table-side out of crystal glassware, using an old method from Havana, Cuba?”

Mark echoes the sentiment, pointing out the level of detail that goes into some of the brothers’ establishments. At Break Room 86, for example, one wall is lined with vintage mixtapes from the ‘80s. He was surprised to find how expensive mixtapes have become since they passed out of fashion, but thought the investment was worth it. The brothers even spent time creating their own custom mixtapes, which patrons would only ever hear if they broke the rules by stealing them. It’s a lot of effort considering the odds are slim that any thief would even have the equipment to play a mixtape, but it’s an Easter egg that adds another level of detail to the bar’s aesthetic.

Courtesy of Break Room 86

Customer expectations only move in one direction: higher. Speakeasies attract drinkers by being special, so they can’t rely on a bedrock of neighborhood drinkers who return every weekend like a neighborhood hang. Even if speakeasy owners sit out the buzzy Instagram cocktail arms race, they still have to keep working to keep drinkers interested. Despite Mark’s nostalgia, he knows there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. “Times aren’t going back that way. People want more and more and more,” he says. His prediction for the future of speakeasies: “I see more technology infused into nightlife, and that will take away the charm and uniqueness of what nightlife was back in the day.”

Cornwell offers a more positive spin, pointing out exciting possibilities for a tech-enabled speakeasy. “One way we’re trying to incorporate tech in Mr. Cannon is through our digital doorman—a camera on the outside of the entrance that’s connected to our bartender’s smartphone so that he can view who’s ringing the doorbell,” he says.

Speakeasies of the future may keep the Prohibition vibe alive forever, or they may radically evolve. But no matter what they look like on the inside, it’s what they look like on the outside that counts—the hidden entrance that encapsulates the thrill of discovery. Mark compares the sensation of a speakeasy to seeing a Broadway show. You can read reviews and listen to friends recount experiences, but seeing it yourself totally overwhelms any preconceptions. Even in a world full of critics, spoilers and bad movie adaptations, the show must go on for people to experience themselves. And speakeasies, despite Yelp reviews and Instagram influencers, will go on too.