New York’s East Village cocktail bar PDT is famously hard to find. (It’s initials after all stand for Please Don’t Tell.)
To enter the establishment, you have to head down a flight of stairs and go into the adjoining hot dog restaurant Crif Dogs. Inside, across from the row of old-school video games, is a wooden phone booth. Like something out a James Bond movie you pick up the phone, which actually serves as an intercom. Once you’ve buzzed, the back wall of the phone booth swings opens and you find yourself inside the watering hole. The bar has room for fewer than four dozen drinkers, including bar stools and a few highly coveted booths and tables. Those lucky enough to get in each night are treated to a menu of expertly crafted cocktails and a selection of snacks, including haute hot dogs, tater tots, and french fries.
While you might be tempted to write PDT’s success off as a fad or a fluke, since it opened a decade ago, few bars have had a bigger influence on how Americans drink. (And I’m not just talking about starting the modern speakeasy craze.) That’s in great part due to Jim Meehan, whose cocktails and vision put the bar on the map. For his efforts, he was named best American bartender in 2009 at industry conference Tales of the Cocktail and PDT was awarded the first ever James Beard Award for outstanding bar program in 2012.
Meehan has since gone on to write the acclaimed PDT Cocktail Book and the forthcoming Meehan’s Bartender Manual, which comes out this October. In addition, Meehan is working with the Heisler Hospitality group on Prairie School, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bar in Chicago that’s set to open in a few weeks.
Understandably, Meehan is a hard man to get a hold of but I was able to get him to spend a few minutes reflecting on PDT’s success and what the next ten years might hold for the bar.
When did you start working on PDT? “I started working with Crif Dogs founder Brian Shebairo and his childhood friend Chris Antista in March of 2007. (Nearly three months before the bar opened on May 24). Chris was a regular at Five Points—now Vic’s— (the first restaurant I worked at in New York) who reconnected with me at the Pegu Club, then introduced me to Brian, who hired me as a consultant and asked me to be his partner later.”
In addition to the cocktails, PDT is known for its famous secret telephone booth door. Where did it come from? “The phone booth, along with the rest of the décor was all curated by Brian, who sourced most of it through Billy’s Antiques, which once occupied the lot on the north side of Houston between Bowery and Elizabeth.”
Now that ten years have passed, are there any things you wished you had done differently? “To be honest, no. Like any operator, we made mistakes, but we learned from them. More than any other project I’ve been involved with in my career, most of what we’ve set out to accomplish at PDT has worked as planned. We’ve been blessed with great staff, good timing and luck, which are three of the most important ingredients for success in the bar and restaurant business.”
Did you ever imagine that you’d be open for a decade? “I never thought about it. I take a Bill Belichick approach to the bar business and approach it one day at a time. You’ve got to focus on winning today before you worry about the future, or you won’t have one.”
Were you surprised by the modern speakeasies trend that you started? “When we opened, the media kept labeling PDT as a speakeasy, which I pushed back on. A New York Post article actually got us raided by the police days later! Once I realized it wasn’t going to let up (and was actually great for business), I coined the term “modern speakeasy” to distinguish the contemporary bars from their Prohibition era forbearers. Of course, PDT wasn’t the first modern speakeasy: Angel’s Share, Milk & Honey and Little Branch all had clandestine entrances and were operating with a similar ethos. PDT was merely the tipping point of the trend, and I got to be one of the primary voices because the owners of those pioneering bars eschewed interviews.”
Do you think modern speakeasies will ever fall out of favor? “There’s a hidden bar in Milwaukee called SafeHouse that’s been open for fifty years. I went when I was in college and returned more than a decade later and loved it both times. If the question is will the concept be copied as much as it is now forever: of course not. But if the question is will it ever not be fun, my guess is no…There will always be a few of these places in major cities that can sustain them through positive word of mouth recommendation.”
Given all the accolades the bar has won, what aspects of PDT are you most proud of? “I’m most proud of the people who’ve come and gone, and the amazing staff that runs the bar today with Jeff Bell’s leadership. The good times and bad come and go, but the relationships I’ve built with many of my coworkers are lifelong and meaningful in a way that makes the accolades pale in comparison. As for the concept, I’m proud that we’ve stuck to our business plan. The phone booth casts a giant shadow over game-changing decisions such as not playing jazz all night long, serving hot dogs from next door with our cocktails, not dressing like bankers, actively promoting women in all roles, and our reservation policy, which is an amenity many are just realizing is more hospitable than places that only accommodate walk ins.”
I have my favorites, but what are the bar’s most successful cocktails? “The Benton’s Old Fashioned, Shark, Paddington and Mezcal Mule.”
Where do you see PDT in 10 years? “I’ll go back to my response for question number four: We didn’t get to year ten by planning it all out. I would love nothing more than to be asked for a follow up to this interview in 2027, but that’s not the way it works in New York City. We’ll continue to approach each night one interaction at a time and with a little luck and a lot of hard work, we’ll position ourselves to endure the ravages of time.”