Barramundi, with its specials scrawled on a chalkboard and its waterlogged-wood exterior, is practically indistinguishable from the other haunts that line its Clinton Street block on the Lower East Side. But buried within is something of a hidden gem. Since early November what appeared to be an innocuous apartment above the restaurant has been candle-lit three nights a week and inhabited by silhouettes barely visible below. There are men in suits attending to corner booths, moving wrists bent with cocktails on trays, washed in that fire hazard of a glow. Could it be? Yes! There is a quaint little speakeasy on the second floor. It is called, of course, 2nd Floor on Clinton.
The space is not exactly new. For the past nine years the former apartment hosted a string of high-end birthday parties, office shindigs, whatever. In October, Barramundi owner Tony Powe began trickling out details about a speakeasy, located above his other bar but its opposite in atmosphere. Since opening, it has maintained a mix of promotion and hush-hush: 2nd Floor on Clinton has a Facebook fan page, but at the moment it has only seven fans.
“We have a small, cultish following,” bartender Ilya Sapiro told me. “It doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic, so you kind of have to know about it.”
Such throwbacks are nothing new to the Lower East Side. Prohibition fetishists can do worse than the Back Room, on Norfolk, with a booze-in-coffee-cups aesthetic ripped out of the opening bust-up scene in Some Like It Hot. So why open a new one?
“Well,” Mr. Powe began, his chummy British accent untarnished by the cell signal. “There was nowhere left for me to drink on the Lower East Side!”
We both had a laugh.
“It has proven quite successful,” Mr. Powe added.
To reach this cozy little space, a friend and I braved the crowded Barramundi, chicken wing bones and half-eaten quesadillas ingloriously scattered on its tables, to reach a door in the back marked “PRIVATE.”
Behind it, a man in vest and tie took the coats (the closet is small enough that no check ticket is necessary) and walked us up to the long, dim room. The erstwhile apartment looks the part, with its bookshelves curated meticulously enough to intimate the slow, halfhearted growth of an English minor’s collection. Indeed, the feel is post-collegiate New York—or, given the careful placement of Lonely Planet guidebooks to disparate foreign locales, post–“go-find-yourself” travel.
Not until the candles arrived could we read the cocktail menu, and even then there was an effort required to take it in. Mixologist Ken Eberle (formerly of Bar Henry, now at Lotus of Siam) doesn’t shy away from romanticizing the Lower East Side. There’s the James Delancey (Plymouth Dry Gin, Dupont 4yr Calvados, Noilly Pratt sweet vermouth, Garnier yellow Chartruese); the Maiden’s Prayer (Castarede Armagnac “Selection,” Rhum JM VSOP, Cointreau, vanilla extract, sweet cream, nutmeg). And the Topsy-Turvy (ginger-infused Death’s Door vodka, honey liqueur, fresh lime, club soda).
Good choices all, but I went with the Tauster, where single-barrel bourbon is brightened and cut by Benedictine, punched up with a burst of Pernod and bow-tied with a lovely infusion of fresh lemon. It was a great cocktail.
Not that the stellar drink selection is the real attraction here. Around the time that my whiskey drink turned to nothing but shrunken ice cubes, a French-accented woman at the next table looked up from the menu and asked her server, “What’s a Manhattan?”
Second Floor on Clinton knows what does matter—it knows the one rule of a speakeasy, that the customer needs to feel as though he’s in on a secret.
It pulls this off, and it does so with the loud Barramundi acting as a buffer and a mask. As we walked out, that bar’s clientele was singing along to an Oasis song, and we were gleefully convinced that no one had any idea where we had come from.