Back room bender

As you duck down a set of unmarked stone stairs through that dank back alley, under the clotheslines and over the black puddles, the pungent smell of moss is punctured only by the allure of a hidden room.

My footsteps echo up the steel fire-escape stairs and through the heavy black door of the Back Room in New York’s Lower East Side, as I at last appear into this wondrous little scene whose Jekyll & Hyde décor evokes memories of New York’s social elite during prohibition.

Said Aaron, Paul, and Musto: "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift”, and so frivolous enjoyment of liquor was driven to these velvet-lined secret rooms. The allure of every detail, from the Art Nouveau tin ceilings to the antique brass gramophone and carved teak furniture, draws your imagination into the mysterious world of underground gentleman’s clubs and the social elegance entailed.

Order a vodka or ‘rumme’ and you’ll enjoy the tactile delights of drinking from a teacup, whist bottles of beer are concealed within brown-paper bags. Cocktails flow between $8 and $12 a piece, which even the most humble of gents will agree is a steal in Manhattan. The sense of risk and rebellion that shrouds the whole operation is vivified by the flickering dim candlelight, which serves to illuminate the classical oil-on-canvas portraits of nude ladies hanging on every wall.  Gazing through the blurs of inebriation, you may notice a dusty but conspicuous bookcase at the far end of the mezzanine level. This swings open momentarily, only to admit friends of the owner into the real ‘back room’ and to allow glimpses of the debauchery that ensues within. A tantalizing peek at a realm into which I hope to be admitted once the owner reads this review!

There’s even something captivating about the wonderfully coy bartenders, whose provocatively aloof reception (I found) can be absorbed by requesting an unusual cocktail and setting it on fire. The pretty young bar girl was very happy to entertain me as I introduced her to ‘Dawa’ – a Swahili blend whose name means ‘medicine’, and whose consumption requires expertise in drinking, inhaling and snorting! As I extinguished my eyebrows with a beer mat I became immediately engaged in conversation with a young New York couple and a South African girl whose tales of life in the city and world travel rendered a sparkling glow over the night.

This secret place is best kept for good company and I feel confident you’ll have fun here with a date, on business or even on your own. The Back Room is a truly unique and stimulating speakeasy whose ambience provides not just a venue to relax the human spirit but also a gateway to extravagant and fanciful experiences your imagination will dance with until dawn.

David Champion

The Back Room

102 Norfolk Street

Lower East Side Manhattan

New York, NY 10002-3310

T:  (212) 228-5098

Subway: Essex St - Delancey St Station

Open Tue-Sat 7:30pm-4am; also open Sun

Vibe: Prohibition hip

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