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Straight-up retro

(Michael Nagle/The New York Times)
By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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The classic cocktail is back, and so is classic speakeasy style. In the last few years, snug little barrooms have been popping up all over New York, serving retro favorites like old-fashioneds, martinis, and Manhattans, in posh, candle-lit, velvet-lined surrounds often accented with exposed brick, taxidermied animals, and studded leather banquettes.

Waistcoated bartenders and secret entrances at some of these hot spots recall Prohibition-era drinking establishments, but your latter-day passport to this bygone world should probably begin with a reservation. Late on a recent Friday night, a stream of well-turned-out young barhoppers headed into Crif Dogs, a hot dog joint in the East Village. Some went straight to the counter to place their orders for late-night munchies; a few turned left into the phone booth along the wall. A few seconds after a customer picked up the phone and rang through, the back wall of the booth opened and a hostess appeared.

“Can I help you?’’ she said.

This is PDT (113 St. Marks Place; 212-614-0386; open until 4 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2 a.m. weekdays), a.k.a. Please Don’t Tell, a small, elegant bar that Crif Dogs owner Brian Shebairo opened three years ago out of the adjoining storefront space. A smartly angled ribbed-wood ceiling and rustic brick walls frame the backlighted bar, its shelves lined with gleaming bottles papered in names that roll marvelously off the tongue: Flor de Caña Silver Dry Rum, Plymouth Sloe Gin, Barsol Quebranta Pisco. The hope, of course, is that the drinks they go into roll just as smoothly onto the tongue.

Happily, PDT’s experienced bartenders make sure they do, with an innovative changing seasonal menu. Jim Meehan, formerly of Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club, is the bar’s general manager and head mixologist. He helped create such concoctions as the house’s Brazilian tea punch, which includes cachaca steeped with Japanese sencha tea for a light herbal kick.

One of the best features here is the feel of the place: unpretentious, friendly, and relaxed. Reservations are accepted the day before your intended visit, which makes the whole thing rather civilized. Patrons perched on cushy barstools and seated in the roomy leather booths sipped and chatted companionably, watched over by such stuffed personalities as a ferocious bear head sporting a white fedora and a rascally raccoon with a gold tooth. One server, Karen, explained the organization of the menu, “generally lighter to darker as you progress,’’ and made recommendations according to customer preferences.

The rhubarbarita — a zippy blend of tequila, lemon juice, Grand Marnier, rhubarb puree, and grenadine — tasted like spring. By contrast, the Benton’s old-fashioned — made from bacon-infused Four Roses bourbon, maple syrup, and Angostura bitters, garnished with an orange peel — had a savory, fatty-mouth feel that had a surprisingly smoky character, the smoke amplified by the syrup. Both cocktails were superb. “We get our bacon from Momofuku,’’ Karen said, referring to David Chang’s exceptional — and pork-focused — New York restaurant empire.

Appropriately enough, there’s also a Chang Dog on the menu — a bacon-wrapped, deep-fried hot dog piled high with red Momofuku kimchi puree — as well as hot dog creations by other notable New York chefs, including molecular-gastronomy specialist Wylie Dufresne (all dogs are $6). Dufresne’s dish, the Wylie Dog, features battered, deep-fried mayo; tomato molasses; and dried onions. For the less adventurous, there is also more traditional bar fare: grilled bacon cheeseburgers ($8) and waffle fries with cheese and pickled jalapeños ($5).

The bar tab came with an elegantly embossed black business card with iridescent red lettering: PDT.

At the Back Room (102 Norfolk St.; 212-228-5098; closed Mondays, open until 4 a.m. other days), the front is a metal gate that reads “Lower East Side Toy Co.’’ Follow the steps down to an alley and through a hidden door, and you’ll find a lovely 1920s-style mirrored barroom lighted by chandeliers, with velvet lounge seating and walls covered in period paisley wallpaper.

Drinks are served in teacups and beers in paper bags, a cheeky reminder of Prohibition-era stealth. And there’s yet another layer to all this duplicity: A secret bookcase leads to a hidden VIP back room.

In the West Village, subterranean Little Branch (20-22 7th Ave.; 212-929-4360; open until 3 a.m.) resides behind a nondescript entrance at the north point of a somewhat triangular-shaped block off 7th Avenue.

This is the sister joint to owner Sasha Petraske’s Milk & Honey, but while the speakeasy ambience of its predecessor carries through — the bartenders wear suspenders, there’s a piano for occasional music sets, and large blocks of hand-cut ice float sensuously in carefully prepared old-fashioneds — Little Branch’s vibe is a bit more laid-back (translation: You can actually get in). Tucked-away booths are intimate and make for a great date locale.

A pressed-tin bar is a sassy and stylish nod to the times of yore. Mixing stations are stocked with golden bottles of syrups and top-shelf whiskies. This is definitely the place to order all manner of classic sours, fizzes, and flips, all with raw egg. Words to the wise: The establishment is cash-only (drinks run about $13), and staff are known to have a stiff pour (make sure you eat something).

A wait is the norm at Death & Co. (433 East 6th St.; 212-388-0882; open until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 a.m. other days), where the spotlighted heavy wood door is carefully manned for crowd control inside (you can leave your cellphone number with the doorman, and he’ll call when a table becomes available). But it makes for a quieter ambience once you pass through the velvet curtains to enjoy well-crafted drinks and savory small plates (try the truffled macaroni and cheese and maple pork belly).

The dim, dark-wood main room isn’t large, with a curving marble-topped bar and several booths along the interior wall (the no-standing policy means that it can get a bit tense with the waitstaff at times). For those who are passionate about their cocktails and enjoy learning about new flavors, a seat at the bar is the place to talk with and observe serious mixologists at work shaking and stirring.

And we do mean serious. The menu is divided up by spirit: gin, rum, tequila, whiskey, brandy, champagne cocktails, as well as a category of flips and other miscellaneous selections. Should you prefer an additional challenge, head to the “multiple choice’’ section for classically constructed cocktails that let you choose your preferred base spirit.

The bartenders meticulously measure out and chill every beverage to ensure perfection. This means that you may have to be patient, but after all that furrowed-brow concentration, you are likely to have a pretty decent drink placed in front of you. And that makes the hunt for the hidden all worthwhile.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.