Secret Speakeasies Are Back in Manila
Prohibition is long over and alcohol is everywhere. So why is this clandestine bar concept more popular than ever?
There is something about the modern-day speakeasy that still makes it sexy, alluring, and yes, dangerous. Sure, alcohol has not been illegal in America since the 1930s, and it was never really prohibited in most parts of the world, but the concept of a hidden bar with its concealed entrances and often windowless existence has proven to thrive in this era of FOMO.
On the mezzanine of a popular ramen shop, Elbert Cuenca (of the steak room and the sandwich shop) saw endless possibilities in what had been perceived a waste of expensive BGC rental. His former partners in the Mendokoro Ramenba downstairs did not care much about the 90 square-meter space, whether it be utilized as a stock room, office, gyoza commissary, or locker rooms for staff. Much more, Cuenca says, when he suggested that it be turned into a bar.
However, when the veteran restauranteur shared his plans for the unwanted space with their landlord, the building owner was so sold on the idea that he wanted in on what would later be known as Elbert’s Upstairs Bar. It was one of those times when the concept came organically, allowing the distinct personality of the location to dictate the establishment’s design and image.
“We do not have our own entrance,” Cuenca enumerates, “We’re on top of a ramen shop. We don’t have a sign outside simply because we do not want to interfere with Mendokoro’s business. It’s a small space and we refuse to play loud music. So, it really is, by definition, a speakeasy.” He does plan on placing a small sign by the stairs with their operating hours since, he explains, “a lot of people still refuse to use Google.”
Right now, Upstairs has no entrance of its own. It doesn't even have its own sign.
Speakeasies, whether they are a happy accident or a deliberate attempt at cool, remain a popular draw in a time when quality-over-quantity is key, regardless of demographic. This is based on actual experiences of bumping into our nephews and nieces in these fashionable watering holes, Old Fashioned in one hand, Instagram story in the other. On the other end of the spectrum is the taipan enjoying a quiet drink with a fellow Forbes lister, or the expatriate looking for a quiet and safe reprieve from unfamiliar sights and sounds.
The Back Room was admittedly planned to be a night club, but its Art Deco look and inconspicuous facade make it the perfect speakeasy.
The Back Room— located in the innards of ritzy Shangri-La the Fort— offers just that. Still very much on theme with its inconspicuous entrance and a foyer with a cloak room and shoe shine chair, the air of mystery is thick around this one. But, it still is a hotel bar and has the first class finishings you would expect, such as the black marble and hard wood that punctuates its Art Deco design.
Executive Mixologist Ulysse Jouanneaud admits the plan was initially for a night club, since there were already several bars on the property. But they wanted a stand-alone bar concept, as well, since the hotel's other bars are attached to restaurants.
The concept, he says, allows for creativity on his part. “Our bar creates its own spirits, particularly Bee’s Knees, which is The Back Room’s homemade gin, made of key Filipino ingredients like luy-ang dilaw, manzanilla, malunggay, dalandan and sampaguita," he says. We also pride ourselves in our homemade distillates as well which you can try out when mixed in our different cocktails.”
The speakeasy, while it banks on its mysterious and dangerous appeal, has a blueprint that works. Cuenca has always known this, he of the pricey steak room on the third floor of an unimpressive office building in Salcedo Village devoid of lobby and elevator. When he was working out the concept of the Upstairs Bar with Noel Bernardo (who designs all of Elbert’s establishments, including the soon-to-open pizzeria and Metronome,his partnership with chef-to-watch Miko Calo), he made a list of what he himself wanted in a bar.
“Noel and I agreed that we wanted it to be for those who just want a quiet place to drink,” Cuenca explains. “If you want to party with loud music, there are many places in BGC for that.” The design enhances that experience, with the carpeted floors muffling guests’ conversations and the dim wireless lamps imparting a relaxed glow. With the furnishings inspired by Cuenca’s design hero Timothy Oulton, it was a space that represents its owner.
“The drinks are classic, no frills, “Cuenca points out, “just classic cocktails that taste good regardless of where you serve it. Well, everything here is stuff that I like. I guess I’m just hoping others will like it, too.”
In 78-45-33, Jay Amante's second bar (the first is 79-53-86 in Quezon City) emanates the magnetism of a modern speakeasy.
In that passion and confidence, we believe, lies the magnetism of the modern-day speakeasy. Art merchant and audiophile Jay Amante has opened his second jazz kissaten in Salcedo Village cryptically-named 78-45-33 (not to be confused with the original 79-53-86 in White Plains, Quezon City). While, technically, they are not hidden, there is that creative energy and rebellious nature that makes it easy to categorize it as a clandestine spot. Amante admits that he enjoys slow days when he has the bar to himself, allowing him to enjoy his prized vinyls by his lonesome. “Walang food except for popcorn,” Amante admits, “so baka di talaga type ng iba. Pag nagka-sisig na ang 78, bad sign yun. It means we can’t pay rent na.”
Concept alone is no longer enough to sustain a venture in the highly competitive local beverage industry. In the vapidity of modern culture wherein value is often quantified through likes and shares, speakeasies are proof that personality, character, and old-fashioned values matter. That if you are a true fan of something—whether it be British ottomans, state-of-the-art equipment, or exotic infusions—there’s always someone out there who will get it and, hopefully, love it. And, at the end of a long, tedious day, all we really want to have is a good drink.