At Goodnight, a "secret" Toronto hangout that opened this summer, patrons don't have to worry about being busted by the police for enjoying a cocktail. After all, this is 2010, not the 1920s. But the windowless, dimly lit hideaway unabashedly evokes the speakeasies of yesteryear. From its location down an alley in the city's garment district to the bric-a-brac-heavy ambience and boozy beverages bearing names like Satan's Whiskers and Fat Sailor, Goodnight is, like the best Prohibition watering holes, more intimate refuge from the madding crowds than a gilded poseur haven.
And it isn't the only one. Across North America, speakeasy-style bars, whether members-only or public, have been the hottest trend in hospitality over the last couple of years. In Chicago, the original stomping grounds of bootlegging kingpin Al Capone, the swank, cash-only basement bar Curio has been packing in cocktail buffs since it opened in June. And in New York, swelegant booze cans such as PDT (short for Please Don't Tell, which patrons enter through a vintage phone booth in the rear of an East Village hot dog joint) and Employees Only (an art-deco-ish hot spot inspired by the Roaring Twenties) have proven popular.
"People like to feel that they're doing something they shouldn't be; I think there's something exciting about that," says Benjamin Towill, a New York-based event planner who threw an elaborate speakeasy-meets-Rat Pack birthday bash for a client last November. His company, Silkstone Events and Catering, transformed a commercial space on Broadway south of Canal Street into a Prohibition-era fantasia complete with dank corridors, a Chinese laundry and a bar built atop barrels. "The idea of discovering things that were tucked away is what that era was all about," says Towill, who already has a request for a similarly styled albeit lower-key corporate Christmas party this season. "It makes you feel important from the minute you find the place because it's not in your face."
Canadian hotelier Jeff Stober has another theory. "Everything we're seeing is a push back or a counterpoint to our reliance on technology," says the owner of the Drake Hotel in Toronto. "Be it homemade, reclaimed, artisanal or repurposed, which are all part of this movement, we're looking deeper and deeper into history books [to reclaim]the simplicity of yesteryear." Of course, many of those who lived through the Prohibition era and Great Depression that followed might not have described that period as simple, but the hard-cheese resourcefulness that characterized it directly parallels our own recession-battered times. For one thing, there's a greater appreciation for the offbeat, the intimate and the vintage these days. And for another, many people, whether out of necessity or because of an antipathy toward ostentation, are entertaining at home, a trend that corresponds to the speakeasy aesthetic.
"It's not a dingy dance club; it's like you're in someone's home," says Amy Burstyn, who had stopped by Goodnight on a recent evening when it was packed with fashion types. Burstyn, who works at a marketing agency in Toronto, was in London last year when a friend took her to another speakeasy-style bar called Barts. For those lucky enough to be allowed entry (by a doorman who peers through a grate), the decor oozes quirk and there's a chest of costumes for added entertainment. "I think it's the perfect time for all these underground places," says Sarah Evans, who oversaw secretive Toronto dinner parties under the name House of Commons last year. Well-connected in the hospitality industry, Evans invited local chefs to cook a meal for a dozen people at her Parkdale pad, which she propped to evoke an old-world salon. Her guests were instructed to arrive at a designated street corner, from which they were escorted to her door.
The pretend subterfuge is a nice touch to consider if you want to throw a speakeasy-style soirée in your own home. "Any time you can bring people together in an intimate environment and consistently have good quality experiences, I think that has longevity," Evans, who recently became the manager of Bavette, the chic subterranean den beneath Toronto restaurant Marben, says of the trend. As Evans has proven, though, those interested in replicating the speakeasy experience at home don't have to parody the Dirty Thirties: For a simple yet contemporary spin on the trend, all you have to do is approximate a supply of bathtub gin on ice (or at least a few bottles of Tanqueray in a big metal bucket), assemble the fixings for some classic cocktails (martinis, manhattans, sidecars) and serve them up in Mason jars or mismatched teacups (as bars from Toronto to Glasgow to New Zealand have recently). Food-wise, classic fare such as roast beef or oysters will set a vintage tone. And if you're keen on a dress code, forget the flapper dress: Boots and leather leggings, offset by a hint of lace, are the new It looks.
If the party is a success, you may still be entertaining well after sunrise. "I would make eggs for [guests]in the morning," Evans recalls of her House of Commons days. "That way, they left with minimal embarrassment."
Styling by Sarah Jay (www.sarahjay.ca); styling assistants, Erin K. Hooper, Marissa Schwartz, Bonnie Haggis; makeup by Robert Weir (www.robertweirmakeupartist.com); hair by Vanessa Jarman for TRESemmé/Page One Management (www.pageonemanagement.com). Shot on location at Bavette in Toronto (416-979-1990).