Through a decrepit gate and down a true New York City alleyway, lies one of the city’s best kept secrets. But, you need a password to get in, otherwise the man at the door may mistake you for a grimy barrel buster. And you better be ready to drink like gangsters and flappers did in the Roaring Twenties.
Be prepared to get blown away the second you step through a thick Jazz Age door with a peephole in the center of it. Your eyes will adjust, trust me, and the music will carry you into a sweet, deep dream of days gone by. You’re at The Back Room. Go order a cocktail.
I had the pleasure of being invited to one of two original Prohibition-era speakeasies in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side, by the bar’s Event Coordinator, Megan. And what a show they put on! Megan, for one, was a gracious hostess, and the bartenders, namely Alex, had a steady hand and creative sense of mixology.
I’ll get to the meat and potatoes in a few minutes, but let’s start with the good stuff, first…the hooch. The Back Room serves cocktails in white cups and saucers and its beer in paper bags, just as they would have back in Lucky Luciano‘s day (one infamous gangster who frequented the space). Alex, our bartender, said, “Our cocktails are creative mixes based off of original ’20s drinks.” They were just strong enough that should you have 3 or 4, you’ll be half in the bag, doing “The Charleston” down the road, attempting to catch your Uber.
I also asked Alex if The Back Room had ever really been raided back in its heyday, and how the barkeepers managed to rid the location of any traces of alcohol. He gave me a definitive, “Yes!” and proceeded to say that the bar used to have holes underneath each bottle of booze. Once word got out The Back Room (once a part of Ratner’s) was under attack, a bartender would manage a contraption, allowing the hooch to drop into the New York City sewer system. The bar had a room in the cellar that housed backup alcohol for the following night’s happenings. And that was that.
Now, as promised, here are your meat and potatoes… an exclusive interview with The Back Room’s Event Coordinator, Megan:
Tell us about how you became the bar’s Event Coordinator:
I have been working for The Back Room since we opened (as The Back Room) in September 2005! I originally started here as a cocktail waitress. I resonated with the owner, manager, staff and space right away.
The owner, John Barounis, is very old school. Over time, he saw that I was responsible, organized and bossy, so he gave me more and more responsibilities. He eventually offered me the position of Event Coordinator, along with the titles of Manager and Daily Operations.
How long have the current owners actually owned the bar?
Since September 2005. The first event we had was a Pearl Jam party. That was our opening night!
This is an odd question, but have you been witness to or heard of any hauntings at the bar?
Oh yes! We have a few spirits in the lounge. There is a women who hangs out by the mirrors in the women’s bathroom.
We also have a not-so-nice older gentleman. Some of the more superstitious bartenders would leave a shot of scotch for him before he/she left for the night.
One of the earlier managers used to burn sage!
And every once in awhile, you catch a view of something in the mirror or something falls down for no reason. The lights are ALWAYS doing strange things. But, I think that the spirits must be fond of me, because they leave me alone.
What’s the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the bar since you’ve started working there? Anything related to its infamous patrons?
Meyer Lansky used to use the back of Ratner’s, which is now The Back Room, to host his “business” meetings.
Speaking of its past, tell us more about when Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky ran amuck. What did they like to drink?
Alcohol was illegal during Prohibition. They were drinking coffee!
We’re approaching 2020. Anything big planned for the bar?
There are always surprises. I’m sure something big will happen. But, they are often last minute or without a lot of notice.
We hosted U2, Adele, Robert Plant and Paul McCartney for events. In every case, I had about a month or less to plan! That’s part of the fun of working in the space.
But mostly, we will continue to provide all of our customers with excellent customer service in a beautiful location with a fun, speakeasy vibe.
What are some major upcoming events our readers should know more about?
We have will continue to host our Monday night jazz nights. We have hosted this event continuously, every Monday, for the last seven years! Svetlana and The Delancey Five are our in-house band.
And The Delancey Five did NOT disappoint! That night, approximately a week ago when I attended the event, The Back Room had special guest, Edith Hazel, as the front woman. Her sweet, deep, and sultry voice rang true, similar to that of a Prohibition-era starlet’s. The girl can sing.
Have you attended New York City’s The Back Room? Strap on those spats and slick your hair, because boy, oh boy, are you in for a swingin’ time!
(photographic credit: Troy Hahn)