October 16, 2014

The Backroom Bar in New York City

Backroom Bar Lower East Side Toy Company sign

photo by: Troy Hahn

The Backroom’s ‘fake front’ as the Lower East Side Toy Company is a nod to old New York City speakeasies that often used supposed apothecaries or blacksmith shops to conceal their true identity.

There are few places on earth, if any, that I enjoy sipping a few cocktails and drinking in the atmosphere more than modern-day New York City. But if I were given the chance to hit the town in the Roaring Twenties, I sure as hell wouldn’t pass it up. Lucky for me, I know a place I can do a little of both: the Lower East Side Toy Company, on Norfolk Street, between Delancey and Rivington.

That’s not the actual name, of course. It’s just the ‘fake front’ for the Backroom Bar, a contemporary speakeasy with roots that date back to Prohibition.

Backroom Bar velvet couches

photo by: Troy Hahn

The Backroom Bar was designed as a fusion between a speakeasy vibe and 1920s ballroom opulence.

“It’s sort of ironic because this was one of the [speakeasies] that didn’t have a fake front,” says owner Johnny Barounis of the Backroom’s Prohibition predecessor, Ratner’s Back Room. “It had a real business operating in conjunction with the speakeasy.”

That business was Ratner’s restaurant, another Lower East Side institution that opened up in 1908 and moved to Delancey Street just before the Volstead Act took effect. The kosher restaurant was seen as a culinary compliment to another neighborhood icon, Katz’s Deli, but its back room served illegal alcohol and the criminal underworld too.

“According to my [former] landlords, the gangsters of the area would have meetings back there -- Meyer Lansky in particular, but so would Bugsy Siegel,” Barounis says. “It makes sense because it’s a kosher restaurant [and] they were Jewish gangsters.”

Backroom Bar peephole

photo by: Troy Hahn

The Backroom’s entrance remains the same as in the 1920s, when guests would enter a door on Norfolk Street, navigate an underground alleyway, and emerge into a courtyard before encountering a doorman.

But the gangsters were attracted by more than the menu. Ratner’s Back Room sat near the apex of three separate buildings, and offered countless ways out. Until the buildings changed hands six months ago, there were exits from the speakeasy onto Suffolk, Norfolk, and Delancey streets. The current speakeasy’s back, back room -- the VIP space hidden behind a rotating bookcase -- had four exits of its own.

“If somebody came in and was being double crossed or there was a hit going on, there were so many different ways out if you knew the space. You could [even] hop the roofs all the way to Rivington,” Barounis says.

Nowadays, the only real suitable entrance and exit is the one on Norfolk Street that was used when the old Ratner’s restaurant was closed. Patrons descend a flight of stairs from the street and walk through a tunnel before entering through a back door.

Backroom Bar mutoscope

photo by: Troy Hahn

The Backroom has been furnished with 1920s period pieces, including an old cigarette dispenser and two Mutoscopes -- an early form of moving picture.

“You come in here through an alleyway that’s sort of like the underbelly of New York past,” Barounis says.

The bar is meant to be as historically accurate as possible, but Barounis points out that a lot of 1920s speakeasies were holes in the wall because of the constant threat of police turning them over. And though the location and accessories like the original moving picture Mutoscopes and the ancient cigarette dispenser are undeniably speakeasy, the 1920s period chandeliers, hardwoods, and paisley accents are notably upscale. The result is what Barounis refers to as “my bastardized version of these old 1920s ballrooms fused with a speakeasy.”

Backroom Bar interior stairs

photo by: Troy Hahn

Since the Backroom opened in 2004, it has hosted celebrities like Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, and Julian Lennon.

That vibe has seemed to jive well with locals and celebrities alike. On top of strong reviews from The New York Times and other media outlets, the Backroom has hosted celebrities such as Julian Lennon, Robert Plant, and Paul McCartney. Actors Michael Stuhlbarg and Vincent Piazza, who play Arnold Rothstein and Lucky Luciano on HBO’s popular "Boardwalk Empire" series even used the historic space for character research and development.

Maybe the coolest event, though, was the recent 102nd birthday of Lillian Sarno, who celebrated passing the New York State Bar exam at Ratner’s Back Room in 1933.

“The one thing that sets us aside from all of these other speakeasies that are out there now is we actually were one,” says Barounis. “People actually were in here drinking illegally 85, 90 years ago.”

“Anything else, it just costs a little money to do, but the history is something you can’t fake.”

Location: 102 Norfolk St., New York, New York 10002

Hours: 7:30 p.m.-4:00 a.m. Closed Mondays.

What to Order: Liquor comes in teacups and beer in brown bags. Take your pick.

There Are Rules: No fur allowed.

Best Yelp Review: "The drinks were amazing and I am pretty sure drinking them out of teacups enhanced the experience.”

David Weible headshot

David Weible is a former content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation is inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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