Secret Sips

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Under CdM_Anne Watson
Some cocktails are infused with smoke at Under CdM. | Photo by Anne Watson

Enjoy clandestine cocktails at these speakeasy-style bars around Orange County—just keep it on the down low.

By Sharon Stello

 

Back in the 1920s, when Prohibition banned the production and sale of alcohol, speakeasies started popping up for those seeking to drink despite the law. These underground watering holes often required a secret password or a special knock on the door to enter. From illicit gin joints to hush-hush jazz clubs, there were plenty of ways for those in the know to get a boozy beverage.

Eventually, Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and bars were allowed to open again. But, now, even though liquor has been flowing legally for almost a century, speakeasy-inspired bars have been opening around the country, including in Orange County, in the last few years.

Perhaps the reason for the rising popularity of such hidden hangouts is that everyone likes to be in on a secret. Many speakeasies are in a basement or backroom with a hard-to-find entrance or advance reservations required due to the small space and limited capacity, adding to the feeling of exclusivity. Some have rotating drink themes that can only be uncovered once you step inside. And, following the pandemic-related bar shutdowns, it seems everyone is looking to get out and have fun. While it may be a different century, perhaps we’re entering another wave of the Roaring ’20s.

The Chartreuse Royale at Pie Society in Costa Mesa | Photo by Pie Society

Newport Nooks

In Corona del Mar, Five Crowns restaurant—a replica of an English country inn, complete with a red phone booth out front—began offering a speakeasy called the 352 Poppy Secret Dining Society about a decade ago on the first Friday and Saturday of the month. These popular dinner and drink nights, which sold out every time, have been on hiatus during the pandemic, but may start up again in coming months, possibly by this summer. Taking place in a low-lit room with a roaring fireplace during the winter months and on the backyard patio on warmer evenings, themes have ranged from the board game Clue to movies like “Star Wars” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” with uniquely relevant dishes and cocktails available only at those events. For “Star Wars,” dishes ranged from Admiral Ackbar Arrabbiata with squid ink pasta, calamari and tomato to Yoda’s Emerald Salad and Jabba the Hummus. “I thought the food was incredible on that one,” says Five Crowns manager Tracy Nelsen, who also runs the beverage program. She adds that “the drinks were fun to come up with” for the “Willy Wonka” theme, such as a Fizzy Lifting Drink using dry ice, root beer, chocolate, Averna and rye, and the Bursting Blueberry with vanilla vodka, blueberry simple syrup, tonic and blueberry boba.

Other times, a 1920s-style speakeasy was presented. No matter the theme, all evenings were complete with absinthe options. On the table, a special absinthe fountain allowed water to slowly drip onto a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon atop each glass to make the licorice-tasting liquor less bitter. Attendees and servers often dressed up, making the night even more fun. Oh, and a password—which must be discovered before entering—is required.

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Under CdM is an intimate space in the basement of CdM Restaurant. | Photo by Lily Fassnacht

Nelsen says she believes speakeasies are appealing because of the intimate cocktail experience. “It’s a very chill place to go,” she says. “You can just go, have a couple of drinks and a nice discussion with people.”

Interestingly, part of the property has a history as a kind of speakeasy, developing a notorious local reputation before it was purchased by the restaurant company. Indeed, the four-room Tudor cottage at 352 Poppy Ave. was used as an illegal gambling establishment, which was uncovered in a 1940 police raid. The home, which now bears a Hazel Drive address, has been rented out—including by the restaurant’s CEO for a while; the garage has served as a Five Crowns wine cellar.

Less than a mile away, CdM Restaurant is home to Under CdM, a tiny basement speakeasy complete with a vintage photo booth. Opened with the restaurant in 2019, the space is mostly available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but reservations may be made by calling and it can be booked for private events, too. Sitting at the small bar provides an intimate experience, watching the cocktails being created right in front of you.

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Some of the craft cocktails at Under CdM | Photo by Lily Fassnacht

There’s true artistry in the making of these unique drinks, like the Blueberry Fairy, which incorporates absinthe. And be sure to ask about the stories behind the Torpedo Juice and Kalua (Pig) Kocktail. Then get lost in the rhythm of the shakers filled with ice and your tasty beverage.

The full food menu from the upstairs restaurant can also be ordered: Try the spicy yellowfin tuna on tempura eggplant or the avocado hummus with warm, house-made pita bread. For a larger appetite, you can’t go wrong with the Dirty Pasta, featuring a ground duck Bolognese, rigatoni and ricotta salata cheese. While the dishes and drinks are impressive, Speakeasy Director Nate Duffy says he believes people come downstairs for the atmosphere. “The speakeasy is a little quieter and more reserved,” he says. “And we get to wow people.”

 

Laguna Libations

Down the road in Laguna Beach, The Seahorse is nestled in the back of Pearl St. General store and it may not have a secret passageway, but it does have a long history as a speakeasy. Dating back to the 1940s as this town’s first gay bar, the building was originally constructed for a church Sunday school, then became a motel with a popular cafe and snack bar before a red-headed single mother named Yvonne Perry took over and started operating a speakeasy. No doubt, some colorful nights and secret dalliances took place here; it’s rumored that patrons stashed their wedding rings in a hidden drawer, which still exists in the back of the bar.

The Seahorse closed in the 1960s and the building became home to an auto parts store and other businesses over the years until 2013, when Michele Reynolds opened Pearl St. General store, resurrecting The Seahorse a few years later when she learned about the history. “We’re really happy to have revived it,” she says.

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The eclectic decor at The Seahorse in Pearl St. General in Laguna Beach | Photo by Sharon Stello

Visitors can still order drinks—regional craft beer on six taps, an impressive variety of wine plus both hard kombucha and seltzer—at the original bar (rescued from the past owner’s basement) and spend time in this inclusive space with an eclectic living room vibe. There are velvet couches, a few high-top tables, vintage artwork, black-and-white photos of actors from yesteryear, crystal chandeliers, palm tree and pink flamingo wallpaper and a record player with stacks of vinyl albums. A back patio was added during the pandemic.

Local chef Leo Bongarra helms the small kitchen, turning out a mix of gourmet small bites like crabcakes, trout rillettes, duck wings and short ribs with chimichurri as well as pork carnitas tacos, an Impossible Burger-and-mushroom meatball sandwich, grilled pizzas, chicken pot pie, Sriracha Salmon and more to nosh on, prepared with TurboChef Bullet ovens (a fryer is not permitted and there’s no license for hard liquor either). New dishes are added to the core menu each week, delighting return guests. “I think what they like more than anything are the surprises—the changes,” Reynolds says.

Down in south Laguna, Nick Bennett, the chef and owner of Ahba restaurant, operates Helen’s speakeasy next door. Look for a red light that signals when it’s open (Tuesday through Saturday and for private events). Although the establishment recently went through some permitting issues with the city and Bennett announced that he would be closing the businesses, he says the problems have since been resolved and both Ahba and Helen’s will remain open.

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Ahba’s vintage vibe in Laguna Beach | Photo by Ahba

Ahba launched in summer 2019 and then Helen’s (named after the woman who owns the building) debuted in early 2021, closing a few times when COVID-19 case numbers spiked. Helen’s, featuring a large outdoor patio, was a way to add more outdoor seating during the pandemic, Bennett says.

With space for about 50 people, this lounge and patio has become quite popular, like other speakeasies in the region. “I guess a lot of it has to do with the aesthetic,” Bennett says. “I think most of them are pretty well-thought-out, like picking up vintage pieces. … It does need that retro aesthetic.” And Helen’s fits the bill, with throwback furniture and decor as well as classic games for guests to play.

The menu features traditional cocktails including a mai tai, martini, Old-Fashioned, Negroni and Moscow mule as well as specialty drinks like a Paper Plane, with bourbon, Aperol, amaro and lemon, and a rum-based Old Cuban, which also mixes mint, lime and prosecco. Food from Ahba may also be ordered, from a squash blossom quesadilla to beet salad, macaroni and cheese, the Ahba Burger and a half chicken with harissa, Ahba Sauce and chimichurri. Bennett was also planning to add to the menu by incorporating a plancha for grilled items like street tacos and LA street dogs on certain days and a longer list of cool whiskeys and mezcals.

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A speakeasy-themed party at McClain Cellars | Photo by McClain Cellars

To reach the speakeasy, however, takes a little sleuthing, as the building’s interior doesn’t look like a bar when visitors first enter. “People, I think, are pretty surprised or confused at first,” Bennett says. “It really looks like an old office. You have to turn the corner to see the actual seating area and, once they turn the corner, it’s a big surprise.”

Aside from permanent speakeasies, McClain Cellars hosted its first party with the theme this past Halloween, complete with a password required for entry to its Laguna Canyon tasting room; owner Jason McClain plans to make this speakeasy costume soiree an annual event. Complete with wine, dinner and live blues music for VIP wine club members, attendees were transported back to the 1920s when booze was forbidden and each sip came from a secret stash. If you missed the 2021 gathering, get your vintage suits and flapper dresses ready for the next pop-up.

 

North County Night Spots

The Blind Rabbit, located in the Anaheim Packing District since 2014, is another place to find absinthe and cocktails in a secret space. Walking through the popular food hall, most people wouldn’t realize there’s a speakeasy hidden among the eateries. But, as the website says, “enter through the sake barrels and exit through the bookcase.”

“There’s a lot of allure when it comes to hidden spaces,” says Erwin Mancilla, a bartender at The Blind Rabbit. “… It’s not just your everyday bar that you can get access to.”

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An absinthe cocktail at The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim | Photo by Jeromy Chan

What makes The Blind Rabbit stand out, he says, is the guest experience. The staff tries to make everyone feel welcome, like they have walked into a friend or family member’s home. “We like to have fun with people and get to know people,” he says.

Food and drink menus change often, so the experience is never the same for repeat visitors. There have been themes at the holidays including Dark Spirits and Incantations at Halloween and even a Christmas in July with special menus. No matter the time of year, part of the fun is watching the bartender make your beverage. Some options have included the Black Magic, with gin, lemon, amaro, blackberries, basil and tonic, and the Old Man & The Sea, made with a smoke-infused glass, bourbon, rum, fernet and cinnamon, as well as classics like the Penicillin, Manhattan and Sidecar. Or try the Absinthe Minded cocktail, “like an absinthe daiquiri,” Mancilla says.

For those arriving before 8:30 p.m., a variety of dishes can be ordered as well, delivered from the kitchen by a dumbwaiter and then a pass-through window. Comfort food has filled the menu—such as duck confit macaroni and cheese, fish and chips or even roasted Jidori chicken with Burgundy glaze—but the plan this spring is to move to tapas-style dishes like elote egg rolls. Each group only has 90 minutes to sip and savor. Reservations are required for the 32-seat space and may be made through Yelp up to two weeks in advance.

Mixology magic can also be found at the 400 Club, a hidden hideaway in Huntington Beach that originally opened in late 2019, right before the pandemic, then reopened in early 2021. Here, the Four Sons Brewing company is known for its beer, but also has a distillery—and those spirits are used to make themed cocktails at the nearby speakeasy. “The 400 Club is a fun experience that will transport you to another dimension,” says owner Duke Dufresne. From Tiki drinks to holiday-inspired libations, the small space is transformed every couple of months with decorations and music to match the menu. There’s no food service, but arrive early to enjoy dinner at the rotating food trucks parked outside the brewery.

The Blind Rabbit in Anaheim
The Blind Rabbit’s interior | Photo by Jeromy Chan

Only open Friday and Saturday nights, reservations are required for the speakeasy and may be made on the website. You’ll receive an email with further instructions. Once you’re let in, make your way through the maze to finally belly up to the bar. “I think people in general are looking for things that are a bit different from the everyday experience,” Dufresne says. “Speakeasies fit that need with their mysterious atmospheres.”

Like some of the other speakeasies, this one has a 90-minute limit for each group, as the space can only accommodate 14 people at a time. Drinks have ranged from the Purple People Eater at Halloween to the candy cane and gingerbread martinis at Christmas, plus core cocktails like the barrel-aged Manhattan, Old-Fashioned and gin mule. Sometimes, the cocktails are infused with smoke or a cinnamon stick is briefly kissed by a flame, adding to the experience.

“Out of the themes we’ve done thus far, our favorite was the Tiki bar, mainly because it allowed for some really interesting decorations and cocktails,” Dufresne says. “Plus everyone can easily relate to and appreciate everything Tiki. Our next favorite was the ‘Breaking Bad’ theme since we all loved that show and we were able to make the speakeasy look like a meth lab.”

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The 400 Club in Huntington Beach changes its theme every few months, from Tiki to “Star Wars” and more.

Over in Costa Mesa, in perhaps the least likely place for a speakeasy, Pitfire Pizza is home to a secret drinking den, Pie Society. Once you find the door, indulge in cocktails like the gin-based Connecting Flight, rum-filled Pretty Bird, a Clarified Rum Punch or The Perfect Gin-Tleman. There’s also beer, wine, sangria and boilermakers, which mix beer like Pabst or Modelo with liquor. Enjoy inside or on a small patio.

A food menu is offered with pizza, pasta, salads and sharing plates of chicken wings and Cheesy Knots, as well as veggie dishes like roasted Brussels sprouts and ratatouille. Dig into Italian specialties like spaghetti with chicken meatballs or linguine Bolognese to go with those secret sips.

Now you know about OC’s hush-hush hangouts, but keep it on the down low.

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