Look for the red light, the alley or the phone booth. Give a password, go through the false bookcase or find the right door at the end of a "Shining"-like hallway.
The sometimes mysterious entrances into Twin Cities speakeasies add exclusivity and intrigue to the cocktail bar experience. Nodding to Prohibition-era spots for secret imbibing — only without the bathtub gin — today's modern hideaways can range from low-key affairs devoted to serious drinking to raucous Gatsby-esque role play. But even the come-as-you-are bars offer a winking acknowledgment that you're about to enter someplace remarkable — as long as you know where to look.
"Stepping into this really special place, you go down an alleyway, you walk through an unmarked door, sometimes you have to wait to get a seat because we're full — why would you do that if you just wanted to have the same experience that you get everywhere else?" says Adam Gorski, bar manager for Sooki & Mimi, an Uptown Minneapolis restaurant with a cozy, semi-secret basement bar.
A tool shop facade distracts from the alley entrance to the Hardware Store in Anoka, where a password or secret phrase guarantees your reservation. "I need a new pipe wrench," perhaps. Inside, curtains carve out private bays between velvet booths, and jazz and blues bands play beneath the ornate tin ceiling.
A speakeasy enthusiast, owner Jason Hostetler traveled to dozens around the country before opening his own venue that honors his grandmother, Lorraine Hostetler, Minnesota's first female mayor.
"Just the look of it when you walk in — everything is hidden, and when you slide the door open, the element of surprise of a beautiful space. It brings people back," Hostetler says.
While the Hardware Store stands alone, many local speakeasies are offshoots of restaurants, giving bartenders a chance to try something different. Tequila Butcher in Chanhassen is known for agave spirits, but a curtained-off backroom called Sockdollager takes things in another direction, with more than 500 bottles of whiskey.
"People are shocked to find a dark and elegant space like Sockdollager behind a white and bright space like Tequila Butcher," says owner Tony Donatell. "We love the contrast."
In Sooki & Mimi's bonus basement bar, lights are low, records are spinning and vintage wooden furniture is stacked to the ceiling.
"It's like, 'Come over here. You're going to listen to really sweet records and you're going to drink really cool spirits,' " Gorski says. "Everybody wants to be invited into that kind of club."
Three to try:
Basement Bar at Sooki and Mimi
1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., sookiandmimi.com/basement
A light over the back-alley door lets you know you've found the entrance to a bar that's been fashioned to look like a '70s-era rec room. Inside, a list of spirits organized by "good, better, best" are meant to be tried neat or in classic cocktails.
The Hardware Store
201 Jackson St., Anoka, anokahardwarestore.com
Walk-ins are accepted, but only people with reservations are privy to clever hardware-themed passwords. The building was never actually a hardware store, but a funeral home — perfect for a clandestine cocktail bar in haunted Anoka.
590 W. 79th St., Chanhassen, sockdollagerbar.com
Tequila Butcher, with its heavy focus on agave, hides a secret whiskey bar in the back. Look for the phone booth to find the entrance to brown spirit nirvana at this 1920s-themed spot.