The Secret Speakeasies of Buenos Aires
"Walter Gropius," I say to the doorman who looks a bit like Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad. We're standing in a dark, closet-sized antechamber just off a quiet street in Palermo Hollywood, Buenos Aires. Outside, there is a big black door with a discreet sign that reads, simply, “Franks.” Satisfied with the password, Mike Ehrmantraut nods his head for me to proceed into the next room. "Adelante," he whispers.
In the next room stands a beautiful woman in a black dress with a pearl necklace and Ferrari-red lips. This is Victoria. Behind her, at the back of the dark room, is an old NYC telephone booth. Victoria gives me a cliff-notes history on speakeasies and then tells me that when the phone rings I am to enter the phone booth and press the numbers 3245 on the keypad. Within a few seconds the phone rings, and I punch in the code. The back panel of the phone booth swings open and reveals Frank's, in all its hidden glory.
Though Victoria’s welcome-script dwells purposely on the famous New York City speakeasy movement, there is another movement at work here. Sure, bars like Frank’s are using the 1920s as a jumping off point for style, design, and cocktail recipes, but they are simultaneously creating a completely new trend. In a metropolis as giant and diverse as Buenos Aires, the need to constantly reinvent nightlife and entertainment is a challenge every business owner faces. With the rise in popularity of speakeasies, the den of hipsterdom that is the Palermo Neighborhood has perhaps the greatest density of secret bars in the city.
Inside Frank’s, the prohibition-kitsch is toned-down slightly, which is a little disappointing. There is a grand wooden staircase that leads to a mezzanine with seating. There are oversized chandeliers, lots of tufted red-velvet upholstery and some damask wallpaper. There are even a few pictures of Al Capone on the walls. But the waitresses are wearing red poodle skirts and polka-dotted shirts and look more Pleasantville than prohibition. The music? Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang, and old school Lauryn Hill. It all makes for a very cool bar, sure, but as a speakeasy, it feels a little muddled.
Matias Bernaola, one of the talented bartenders, welcomes me at the bar. I order a Belle Époque with Hapsburg Absinthe to kickstart the evening. The bar itself is beautiful with gigantic carved wood cabinetry and all sorts of interesting, old-world bar utensils. For a place that is not even three years old, they certainly have racked up some toast-worthy accolades from Argentina’s Bar and Drinks magazine: Best Argentinian Barman in 2011 and 2012, Best Bar in South America in 2012, and the 36th Best Bar in the World in 2012. Watching Bernaola and the other hipstery bartenders at work, it's easy to see why—they really know how to mix cocktails.
Juan Bóscolo, Operations Manager at Frank's, tells me that, after Frank's opened, hidden bars became a sort of trend in the Argentinian capital. "The people of Buenos Aires like to be a part of something," Bóscolo says. "They love to be able to get in to a bar where not everyone is able to get in." Of course, anyone can get into Frank's if they find out the weekly password. Hints are released throughout the week on Frank's official Facebook and Twitter profiles.
By 1:00 a.m., Frank's is totally packed…and not in a good way. It has degraded into the sort of place I try to avoid. The sort of place where it takes too long to get a drink, and where you have to burrow your way to the bar rail like a prairie dog. The sort of place where dudes who are too old creepily hit on chicks who are too young. The sort of place that makes one want to get drunk at home. (Disclaimer: All things considered, Frank's is a great place to go for a funky night out. It's just not my scene. Maybe I'm getting old.)
As a hidden bar I think Frank's' glory days are over. The inevitable end for all great secret things, I suppose. But, as a great bar in a great city, Frank's has a very bright future ahead. On the way out, I ask Mike Ehrmantraut what percentage of customers inside actually know the weekly password. "One hundred percent," he says. "If they don't know it, they have to go find it."
As the secret bar trend continues to develop in Buenos Aires, not all of the new speakeasies are taking the shape of a standard bar. On Costa Rica Street, in Palermo Soho, there is an inconspicuous black gate. Behind the gate is Gustavo, wearing a tuxedo and holding a clipboard. He looks down at me from the step upon which he stands. I give him my name, and he flips through the paper on his clipboard. He looks up at me again, then more paper flipping. I start having seventeen-year-old clubbing flashbacks. Finally, he finds my name and opens the gate. As I enter, I glance back to see the sad people on the street staring in curiously. Gustavo closes the gate in their faces.
I walk into what can only be described as a modern Argentinian villa mixed with Manhattan art gallery and Jessica Alba'esque Hollywood Hills pool party. I am not quite sure where I am, but I know I'm somewhere cool. There is a cozy clubroom with a pool table and a tufted leather couch. There is also a lounge with red velvet sectionals, calf-skin egg chairs, funky local art on the walls, and a DJ spinning chill-out tunes. From the second-story lounge, I look out over a gorgeous pool, a candy-striped garden bar, and a mixed crowd of hip revelers.
This is The Clubhouse and there are only two ways in: you either rent one of the three guest rooms in the villa, or you become a member. Of course, becoming a member is not cheap…or easy. You have to impress Pierre Révay.
I catch up with Révay in the lounge. He's the 24-year-old Director of Hospitality for Oasis Collections in Buenos Aires, a boutique hospitality company that owns The Clubhouse. Pierre is from Paris. He is good looking. He has a cool accent. He has a cool job. He has cool stubble. He is wearing a cool leather jacket. He looks cool when he smokes. If you want to become a member at The Clubhouse, you first have to introduce yourself via email to Pierre. If you don't botch the email, Pierre will send you a questionnaire-style application form. If you don't botch the questionnaire, you are summoned for a one-on-one interview with Pierre. And if you don't botch the interview, you're pretty much in. If I had to prove to cool-Pierre that I was cool enough to be a member, I'd surely be condemned to a life of pre-mixed margaritas at T.G.I. Fridays. Luckily, I'm a journalist with press access.
Pierre and I head down to the garden bar for a drink. He introduces me to the head bartender, Peter Van Den Bossche. I order a mojito, and we smoke some cigars and watch the crowd of stylish, late-twenty-somethings mingling poolside. "We've also had a few pop-up Clubhouses in Uruguay and Colombia," says Pierre, through a cloud of cigar smoke, "and we're planning on opening another Clubhouse in Rio de Janeiro in time for the World Cup." After a few more drinks and some conversation, I watch Pierre get swallowed up by the crowd. Without him around, my cool-factor plummets drastically. I decide to quit while I'm ahead and find a taxi.
If Frank's is inspired by the old speakeasy trend while The Clubhouse is the reinvention of it, there must be somewhere is this sprawling mega-city that is hell-bent on running an honest-to-goodness prohibition-style speakeasy. I meet Allie Lazar in Palermo Viejo on the last night of my search. Originally from Chicago, she's been living in Buenos Aires since 2006 and runs Pick Up The Fork, one of the city's most popular food blogs. She's well connected and is my only hope in hell of getting into The Harrison Speakeasy—one of the most recent, and most whispered about, hidden bars in town.
We walk into Nicky NY, a funky little sushi spot on Malabia Street. There are some hushed words between Allie and an employee. After a minute or two, we are greeted by Oliver. "Follow me," he says. He leads us through the restaurant to a door at the back of the dining room past the washrooms. We're now in some kind of dusty, old wine cellar, though it may be fake, I'm still not sure. Oliver recites a little tale about prohibition and the speakeasy's origin story before opening the doors of a giant Narnia-style wardrobe and leading us through it's yawning entrance. Now, we're in a very small, very hot room with no decor—there is only an ominous-looking vault door. "There are no photos allowed inside," Oliver warns us. He spins the wheels, pushes the door open and says, "Welcome to the 1920s."
Now we're in some kind of prohibition-era office. Or is it a warehouse? There's an old rotary phone and a few yellowed papers on a cluttered old wooden desk. There are old glass windows. There's even some of those crazy vertical switchboard doodads. We turn the corner and we're smack dab in the twenties. There's no use describing it. Just picture a bar from Boardwalk Empire, only cooler. In fact, I think they're even playing the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack. And then there are the champagne coups! And the crystal decanters! And that old piano there.
We mosey up to the massive, ornate wooden bar and take a seat. Seba Garcia, Harrison's head bartender introduces himself. Garcia looks the part with a high-and-tight haircut, a thin moustache, suspenders, and a bow-tie. "Do you like bourbon?" he asks. Silly question. Whoa, is that a torch in his hand? Garcia fires up a small plank of wood on the bar. "This is French Oak from Mendoza," he says as the wood grows red-hot under the flame. He flips a glass upside down over the embers. The glass fills with smoke. He's got another glass ready to go. In go Maker's Mark, Peychaud's Bitters, and an orange peel. I look down for a second and miss the coming together of the items. Everything is in the smoky glass now with a beautiful, giant square ice cube "I use one big ice cube so the bourbon doesn't get watered down," Garcia says. He sprays the glass with some citrus peel and garnishes the cocktail with an organic flower and cinnamon sticks. Out comes the torch again. He fires the cinnamon sticks with the torch. "This is an Old Cinnamon Fashion," Garcia declares, "I suggest you close your eyes for the first sip."
The sheer greatness of the cocktail renders me mute. "Seba has been voted the best bartender in all of Argentina two years in a row now by Bar and Drinks Magazine," Lazar says, breaking the silence. Garcia, who is 28 years old and has been mixing drinks for almost a decade, shrugs this off as though it's nothing and pours us some shots of Harrison's homemade bitters. "For us," Garcia says, "bar tending is a 24-hour job."
Slowly, a motley assortment of customers filters in. The place gets busy, but not too busy, which is nice. Every so often, I glance over at Garcia behind the bar. I catch him using a potato peeler to sculpt a giant ice cube into a sphere for a whiskey on the rocks, slapping bundles of mint in his hand before stuffing them in high balls, cracking an egg white into a cocktail shaker, and carefully squeezing drops of bitters into low balls like a mad scientist. All the while, he is as calm as a Hindu cow. He makes me a 20's Sazerac with Jack Daniels, Peychaud's Bitters, simple syrup, and local Tigre de la Ira absinthe. Then another shot. This time a Belle Époque. Then a Rum Swizzle with crushed ice and lemongrass garnish. Then a dark rum and Cynar shot. There are some more specialty shots too, and it all starts to get a little blurry.
What I do know is that The Harrison Speakeasy is the coolest bar I've ever been to. Great vibe. Great cocktails. Detailed to the nth degree. It's even cooler because not many people really know how to get in. I could tell you, of course, but then I'd have to kill you.