One way to hide out from summer’s heat is to duck into a speakeasy for a cool and relaxing cocktail. It’s easier to find these hidden bars in Texas since the concept was revived to popular appeal just over a decade ago with the likes of Austin’s Midnight Cowboy (2012) and Dallas’ Midnight Rambler (2014).
Contrary to popular belief, the history of the speakeasy—a bar illegally selling alcohol while intending to stay hidden from the law and the general public—predates the Roaring ’20s and Prohibition (1920 to 1933). The term “speakeasy” was used as early as 1889, while “speak softly shops,” relying on similar concepts, operated around England and Ireland well before that. The truth is, alcohol (production, sale, consumption) has always tended to run afoul of the law, so under-the-radar bars are probably almost as old as booze.
Since modern Texas speakeasies enjoy the luxury of being legally licensed, they mostly concentrate on recreating the interior ambiance and the cocktails of Prohibition-era bars, or they put a little imagination into keeping their locations inconspicuous. For top-shelf drinks and a bit of social seclusion, look sharp: These five hidden bars are worth the search.
Secreted away in the LaSalle Hotel, this classic speakeasy is located in a downtown building that dates back to the mid-19th century and was operating as a hotel during Prohibition’s final years. Hotel guests—and anyone else looking for it—knock five times on a solid, heavy door in the basement and pay $5 cover to gain admittance to a handsome and unexpectedly spacious nightclub.
Traditional Prohibition-era cocktails are offered, including the gin and sweet cream elegance of a White Lady; the aptly-named Scofflaw with bourbon or rye; and Satan’s Whiskers, which combines gin, vermouth, and orange.
“We have live entertainment Friday and Saturday nights,” says Vaughan Johnson, LaSalle’s kitchen manager and event coordinator. She says the discreet bar suits the boutique hotel’s historic image. “Especially with the dimensions and the shape of the room, it seems like a perfect fit.”
120 S. Main St., Fri-Sat 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The blue martini light in one window and the name “Modernist” on the mailbox are all that give away the retro cocktail bar masked as an inconspicuous house in a leafy neighborhood near the Pearl. Inside the 1920s-era house, along with midcentury living room furnishings, there’s a metal-topped bar and comfortable lime-green padded stools.
The bartenders specialize in improvised drinks based on guest preferences. On a recent April evening, for instance, when an “elevated” Jack Daniel’s on the rocks was ordered, the response came in the form of a refreshing bourbon and water flavored with cilantro and velvet falernum (a Caribbean liqueur). There’s additional patio seating out back.
516 E. Grayson St., Tue-Sat 5 p.m. to midnight.
The key to finding the Kanpai Club is knowing the location of Hando, a sushi bar in the Heights. Inside Hando, through the unmarked red door, an intimate, urban cocktail den occupies just 400 square feet. There are only 10 seats at the marble-topped bar, where cocktails are prepared with whiskies, gins, rums, and other spirits and ingredients from Japan. There are five flavors of chu-hi (a traditional Japanese highball), including peach and lychee.
Since the club shares the restaurant’s kitchen, Kanpai’s food features similar Japanese aesthetics, with small plates such as rib-eye skewers and shrimp katsu. A tip: Kanpai Club doesn’t accept reservations or cash.
518 W. 11th St., Suite 500; Sun-Thu 4 p.m. to midnight, Fri-Sat 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
On US 290, 10 miles east of Fredericksburg, there is a little white farmhouse at the front of a 10-acre orchard with pecans, plums, blackberries, and grapevines. Trey Blocker, founder and CEO of Salvation Spirits Distillery, explains that unassuming house stood at its location for decades before quietly becoming a tasting room in 2021. “Other than a fresh coat of paint, we left the outside alone and completely renovated the inside to have this elevated speakeasy look and feel,” he says.
The bar offers complimentary flights of Salvation’s vodka and gins and sells cocktails using those spirits. Here, a rare blackberry gin becomes the foundation of a martini made with sweet vermouth (which helps turn up the blackberry flavors).
Reservations are required Fridays and Saturdays; utilizing sort of a secret knock, guests are texted a special gate code the morning of their visit.
10091 US 290; Thu-Sat 1 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun noon-7 p.m.
La Viuda Negra
“We wanted to open a speakeasy to highlight the spirits of Mexico,” says Luis Villalva, who owns La Viuda Negra in Lower Greenville with his family. La Viuda Negra means “black widow”—playfully ironic considering the bar is found behind a storefront that’s pretending to be a bridal shop.
The bar is dim and moody with muted tones and a low-key atmosphere. The drink menu is updated regularly and specializes in spirits and other ingredients from Mexico. The popular Amarte a La Antigua, for example, is a nod to the Old-Fashioned and made with Mexican whiskey, sugar, mole bitters, and agave nectar.
2513 N. Fitzhugh Ave.; Tue-Thu 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri and Sat 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun 5 p.m.-midnight.