The Secret Codes of Hotel Chantelle

“Tim would like to invite you to go downstairs,” the bartender at Hotel Chantelle said to The Observer.

The Observer wasn’t sure who Tim was, but of course we accepted.

It was Monday night at the hidden World War II–themed bar on the stretch of Delancey Street that’s spitting distance from the Williamsburg Bridge, and we had come to investigate the cellar space into which we were about to be ushered. We had heard rumors: A couple to the right of us spoke of it in reverential whispers; there was talk that it would be named “SGTs” and sport a Pacific Theater theme. Apparently it was only accessible with a mysterious skeleton key.

But we were also privy to the truth—we had been to the space a few nights earlier, for a secret preview event, and expected to not feel that low ceiling encroach on our heads until the official opening in the spring.

The Observer found some things out that late, late Thursday night. The downstairs room at the Hotel Chantelle may not yet have a name, but when it does, that name will likely be on everyone’s lips. The place has the potential to be that next spot—dank and dark and implying debauchery, with girls decked in airy throw-dresses hanging gently on the windowed wall wedged between the bar and the dance floor. There are those red thick-glass light bulbs you see in sewers and submarines, and everything is done up in aged golden-brown wood. It’s small, and bad things seem prone to happen here.

But Thursday was a one-off rager. Upon heeding Monday’s strange invitation, The Observer lifted our Whiskey Tango—the liquor tempered to blond by mellowing egg whites—and pushed past the “Employees Only” notice to descend a slab-cut staircase until we reached the door to the lounge.

Tim, it turned out, was Timothy Spuches, one of the bar’s directors, and he sat with two brunettes enjoying the last drags of their Marlboro Reds. It was an odd place to be without a crowd around. Now there was the black-tile floor, and the rest was a void.

With The Observer’s arrival, Mr. Spuches stood up, letting the ends of his trench coat dangle near the tips of his black shoes. Then came a verdict: We’d leave the storied basement and return upstairs, and “Ben” would give us a call.

Benjamin Shih is the owner of Hotel Chantelle. Before setting up shop at the sign-less bar on an otherwise desolate nook on Ludlow Street, Mr. Shih operated Williamsburg haunts Sweet Ups and Royal Oak. Before that he served in the National Guard.

Mr. Shih called The Observer as we were enjoying another cocktail, the Bramble, a whiskey drink with a plump blackberry weaving its juices gracefully into the mix. The decorations on this floor conveyed the theme: the Choking Victim sign done up to look like Hawaiian kitsch, the grand wooden bar and the plush ruby-red booths that orbit it, Bing Crosby on the speakers setting up the 1940s USO vibe (the iPhone Shazam app confirmed the song title, “In the Town of Berlin”).

Two years of feverish rumors about the Hotel Chantelle basement, however, turned out to be largely untrue. There is no skeleton key that excludes the uncool. It will not be called SGTs. For now there will be no more parties.

All Mr. Shih can say is that it’s set to open in the spring, and Thursday was simply a special occasion.

“They want to get all the hot places to book private parties for Fashion Week,” Mr. Shih told The Observer. “They’re just looking to get, like, the pre-buzz.”

From what we saw, the pre-buzz has been earned—and some of the mystery will remain intact. When we grabbed our coat that Monday night, we told Mr. Spuches we had left our scarf on one of the wooden benches downstairs. Instead of letting The Observer go back through the cellar door ourselves, he shook his head and wagged a hand for the bartender to retrieve it.

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The Secret Codes of Hotel Chantelle