During Prohibition, hundreds of secret bars, or speakeasies, popped up throughout California. These under-the-radar establishments bucked temperance laws to pour potent potables in hidden spots like attics, backrooms and basements where anyone with the right connections could enjoy a sip. Today, some of the originals have remained in operation, while other speakeasy-themed bars pay homage to this glamorously illicit era.
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. Sip in secret at these fabulous establishments listed north to south.
1. Pre Flite Lounge, Sacramento
This unpretentious Sacramento institution has been serving stiff drinks and good times since 1972. The hidden lounge earned its name as the last stop for travelers before making their way to the airport. In 2014, Pre Flite changed locations, but its unpretentious charm remains intact. Stop in for a brew by heading to Jazz Alley off 10th Street, then turn down an unmarked side street. The entrance isn't marked, but don't let that stop you—look for an artful graffiti wall and a door in the alcove.
2. Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco
The address of 501 Jones Street in San Francisco has been operating as a drinking den since 1899 when the phone book listed it as the “H. W. Vette & Co. Grocery Saloon.” The spot survived Prohibition by operating as a “cigar shop” where well-dressed ladies and gents would imbibe. Bourbon & Branch is the current iteration, featuring five separate hidden bars, including a room only accessible by a trick bookshelf. To visit, make an online reservation to access your password. Once inside, consider the Cucumber Gimlet (gin, lime, elderflower, orange bitters and sparkling wine) and forget about your cell phone (the bar has a strict no-phone policy).
3. Barrelhouse, San Luis Obispo
A two-chair, vintage-style barbershop is a front for an underground taproom in downtown SLO. Although it’s not an authentic Prohibition bar—the speakeasy-themed Barrelhouse opened in 2016 as an extension of BarrelHouse Brewing Co.—the building it occupies is well over 100 years old. Step through the barbershop and down the stairs to explore a little room finished with exposed brick and rusted beams. Of the 16 high-end specialty taps available year-round, the most in-demand include the exclusive Reservado de Robles Barrel-Aged Beers and Salvaje de Robles Sour and Wild Ales.
4. The Varnish, Los Angeles
The oldest public house in L.A., Cole’s is best known for its iconic invention: the French dip sandwich. But behind the old-fashioned eatery serving up classic sandwiches, there’s an intimate speakeasy stirring exceptional cocktails. Push past a secret door in the back of the restaurant to find cozy booths and an upright piano that comes to life Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights. Try the Havana Fix (gin, homemade grenadine, and pomegranate syrup)—or ask the mixologist to surprise you and put yourself in their capable hands.
5. The Blind Rabbit, Anaheim
This 1920s-style club, complete with low lighting, eclectic glassware, and a 1905 working piano, is tucked behind a stack of sake barrels in the Anaheim Packing House. The exclusive 550-square-foot bar hits capacity at 35 guests, and reservations are mandatory after 5 p.m. Try the Wait for It to get a free show with your drink—the aged rum cocktail is served flambé. Small plates like crispy pork belly and duck mac and cheese help soak up the sauce. Think you’ll return? Regulars can opt to reserve a personal locker to keep their favorite bottle under lock and key.
6. False Idol, San Diego
Head through the walk-in fridge in San Diego’s Little Italy to discover this Polynesian hideaway. Part tiki bar, part speakeasy, False Idol is hidden inside trendy gastropub Craft & Commerce. Hundreds of colored glass buoys and preserved pufferfish cover the ceiling, while water trickles and fire spouts from the wall. The cocktails are equally as enthralling. Try the punch bowl–style Alkala the Fierce: a chai-infused bourbon blended with 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.