During the Prohibition era, secret bars, or speakeasies, popped up in hidden places; those who dared to seek out these illegal establishments—and had the connections to get in—could enjoy a cocktail in a private, often dimly lit room. While the northeastern U.S. was a hotbed for this bootlegging action, California did not go dry. There were hundreds of speakeasies throughout the state. Today, some of the originals have remained in operation, while others have recently opened to pay homage to that time in clever ways. The major cities (Los Angeles and San Francisco, specifically) have dozens of secret bars popping up in surprising locations, but there are many hidden gems throughout all of California.
From an underground taproom fronted by a vintage barbershop in San Luis Obispo to an immersive tiki bar hidden in a San Diego restaurant, the Golden State offers plenty of options for cocktail lovers who thrive on finding secretive destinations. Below is a list of California speakeasies that embody the era—due either to their deep history or their unique take on the secretive concept—listed north to south. Plus: insider’s tips on getting through the door and what to order.
– Cristina Goyanes
History: This dive bar, which opened on L Street in 1972, was a last stop for many before they made their way to Sacramento International Airport. In 2014, the construction for the Sacramento Kings' new sports complex, Golden 1 Center, prompted the pub to find a new home. It relocated about 800 metres east, inside an old bank basement on 10th Street—where it's virtually out of sight unless you’re in the know.
How to get in: Go to Jazz Alley off 10th Street, then turn down an unmarked alleyway. The entrance isn't obvious, but don't let that stop you—look for an artful graffiti wall and a door in the alcove.
What to order: Forget fancy cocktails. Instead, go for the $5 heavy-handed beer pours or canned PBR.
Also try: Just off another alley, near 7th and K Streets, behind a bus stop, sits Ruhstaller Brewery (to get in, ring the bell). Captain Frank Ruhstaller, a Swiss marksman, opened the brewery back in 1881, when Sacramento was the beer-making capital of the West. That all changed with Prohibition. The brewery closed in 1927, but new owner Jan-Erik D. Paino revived the century-old brand in 2011.
History: This address, 501 Jones Street, has been operating as a drinking den since 1899, when the phone book listed it as theH. W. Vette & Co. Grocery Saloon. Irishman John J. Russell, a whiskey runner, later ran the property as a so-called cigar shop from 1923 to 1933. “According to a local historian, scores of exquisitely dressed ladies and gentlemen visited ‘JJ Russell’s Cigar Shop’ at all hours during Prohibition, although not too many cigars were ever sold,” says Brian Sheehy, chief executive of Future Bars Group, which owns Bourbon & Branch—the newest iteration of this speakeasy, now over a decade old. “Bourbon & Branch features five secret exit tunnels, with one specifically designated as a Ladies Exit—the most obscure—for a quick getaway,” Sheehy says.
How to get in: Make an online reservation to get your password, then ring the doorbell on Jones or try the unmarked door on O’Farrell. Once inside, see if you can uncover the Wilson & Wilson, the even more elusive speakeasy within the speakeasy. And be sure to follow the rules—they encourage speaking, well, “easy,” turning off your phones, and not standing at the bar.
What to order: A highbrow cocktail (note: Cosmopolitans are frowned upon). Consider the Cucumber Gimlet (gin or vodka, lime, elderflower, orange bitters and sparkling wine) or the Revolver (Bulleit bourbon, Tia Maria, orange bitters).
Also try: Marianne’s is one of the city’s most iconic speakeasies. Set discreetly behind a bookcase within the Cavalier restaurant (360 Jessie Street), the bar was once members-only. Now it merely requires an online reservation, available one week in advance.
History: A two-chair, vintage-style barbershop is a front for an underground speakeasy-themed taproom in downtown SLO, which opened in 2016 as an extension of the three-year-old BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Paso Robles. Though it’s not an authentic Prohibition bar, its bones date back more than a century. “[The building] hadn’t been occupied since the early days of the railroad boom,” says Chris Vaughn, the brewery’s marketing manager. Renovated using most of the same materials of the original 19th-century building, including exposed-brick walls and rusted beams, the bar immediately transports guests back 100 years.
How to get in: Step into the barbershop, which usually has a line out the door, and head straight for the back and down the stairs. “The keg room is hidden behind a hinged bookshelf,” Vaughn reveals.
What to order: Of the 16 high-end specialty taps available year-round, the most in-demand include the Reservado de Robles Barrel-Aged Beers and Salvaje de Robles Sour and Wild Ales. You can’t order a pint of these brews anywhere outside this taproom and the brewery.
History: Though not an original from that time period, the Varnish has earned its street cred through its shared landmark establishment—the century-old Cole’s restaurant. Supposedly the originator of the French Dip Sandwich, the old-fashioned eatery first opened in 1908, in the Pacific Electric building (once the city’s tallest skyscraper) at 118 East 6th Street. Fast forward to 2009: Under its new owners, 213 Hospitality, Cole’s expanded to include this speakeasy in the back, further embracing its Americana-heavy past.
How to get in: Grab a French Dip sandwich at Cole’s before heading to the door in the back. Seating, which is tight (max capacity is 70), is first-come, first-served. Stop by any time after 7 p.m.; you can catch live jazz on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays after 9 p.m.
What to order: The Havana Fix is a masterpiece, claims the Los Angeles Times. The Varnish’s take on the classic cocktail consists of gin with homemade grenadine and pomegranate syrup. Its cousin, the Brazilian Fix, is made with cachaca, honey, and chartreuse.
Also try: The Federal Bar on Pine Avenue in Long Beach was home to the Security Pacific National Bank in 1924. About 90 years later, it was converted into a restaurant, basement bar, and obscure parlour, complete with a VIP area built right inside the old vault. Access to the lower level is in the back of the restaurant, but first ask a bartender for the passcode, which you’ll need to enter.
History: This 1920s-style club, complete with low lighting, eclectic glassware, and a 1905 working piano, is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Robert Adamson and Ying Chang. They co-created this nostalgic vision with Leonard Chan two years ago as part of the new Anaheim Packing District. Camouflaged floors within the Packing House restaurant give way to a concealed 50 square-metre bar that seats 35.
How to get in: From noon to 4 p.m. on weekends, anyone is welcome, with no reservations needed. If you want to swing by after 5 p.m., make a reservation on the website. To find the exact location, look for “The Black Rabbit Handle” and enter through the sake barrels. The place plays hard to get, which is part of the fun. While there is no passcode, there is a dress code: “No baseball hats. No logo shirts. No flip-flops. No shorts.”
What to order: Moscow Mule fans might like the “Hole in the Floor” cocktail, a blend of vodka, pineapple, lime, strawberry, ginger cane, and ginger beer.
Also try: Another sightless creature wants to quench your thirst—the Blind Pig, in Huntington Beach. Behind a bookcase inside the Saint Marc Pub-Café at the new Pacific City development, this bar serves only 15 patrons at a time, so you’ll need to reserve a table via Saint Marc’s website. Each party has a 90-minute limit, unless they buy a bottle.
History: Though most people wouldn't think to combine tiki and speakeasy themes, it really works for this Polynesian hideaway on Beech Street in San Diego’s Little Italy—all thanks to its visionary creator, Martin Cate. “I was considering San Diego as a location for a tiki bar for many years,” he says. “I love the food, the climate, and the people. The city’s combination of maritime tradition and rich Polynesian pop history makes it the perfect setting for a new tiki bar.” Cate opened the rum-centric bar—which features more than 200 rare and vintages rums and 36 cocktails—in the recently renovated Craft & Commerce gastropub (a destination in its own right), in partnership with CH Projects.
How to get in: Finally, a walk-in fridge that actually begs you to do just that: Walk in. While reservations aren’t mandatory, it’s smart to book one on Open Table just in case.
What to order: Try a punch bowl–style cocktail called Alkala the Fierce: a chai-infused bourbon blended with aged and dark rum, vanilla, pimento dram, and orgeat. Every time someone orders it, it causes the bar's “volcano” to erupt and its seats to shake. Plan to split this $45 communal drink with at least three or four friends.
Also try: The Noble Experiment—a phrase once used to describe Prohibition—is a popular San Diego speakeasy stashed in a restaurant called Neighborhood (777 G Street) in the Gaslamp Quarter. On your way to the bathroom, look for a wall of beer kegs, which doubles as a hidden door. Push the right side of the “wall” until a red neon sign is revealed, then enter for one of the best cocktails in town. You can walk in, or text or reserve online, depending on availability.