As we are finishing our meals, the waiter comes over. It’s not to ask us anything, but to bless us with the news that we have completed our time in purgatory and earned our time to ascend. The speakeasy awaits.

I pick up the faux-phone hanging in the middle of the dining area and after three brief tones I hear a woman’s voice: What’s the password? I read out the phrase from the scrap of paper. The door is hefty and swings smoothly like it’s guarding a vault. We step inside, shutting out the sunlight and the lesser patrons behind us. We climb up a steep, jagged set of stairs lined with pristine wood paneling and framed pictures. It’s so new I can smell traces of the contractor’s cologne.

We come out to a lounge lit warm and dim. Although we’d been told to wait for space to open up, the place is mostly empty. We figure a party of ten or twenty has just slipped out of the unmarked doorway at the bottom of the stairs, which leads conveniently onto the avenue sidewalk. We hesitate, then we see we are being beckoned. Stepping gingerly up to the bar, we are aware that our demeanor is crucial to the integrity of the vibe. We try not to speak too loudly, or act too casually. Ambience is a delicate affair.

We sit at the bar, where the young bartender distills the complex world of flavor into a four-tile matrix. He writes it in pen on the back of a coaster. The lack of menu is presumably an authentic vestige of the prohibition years, when evidence couldn’t be risked. The bartender doesn’t need recipes, anyway. My friend reveals his preferences and I do mine. The bartender then relaxes and opens himself to the inspiration in the air. It’s like watching Keith Jarrett playing live in Köln. There are windows looking over the restaurant downstairs but I dare not peer down lest I break the spell.

This young man, so young, is already at the helm. Perhaps he is back home from theatre school for the summer and has found here a worthy use for his talents of performance and improvisation. And here I am, front row seat, witnessing it all. I can only imagine how quickly his mind is working. Hmm, yes, ok, some of this… and perhaps some of this… and, hm, let me think… ah, how about this… ok, very good… but we’re missing something… Ah yes, a floral note! Let’s go for the jugular — an actual flower, plucked out of the fridge, and dropped delicately on top… It might seem pointless but it is for the drinker to taste psychologically, as an after-thought, as it were, as he rises from the misting surface of his libation.

My friend takes his drink gratefully, eager to taste this fresh creation. And now the bartender turns to me. His untamed curls fall gracefully over one eye as he confirms my preferences, and once again his mind begins its sweep through the possibilities, in search of the optimal triangulation that would locate my desires in the world of spirits. I sense a certain shakiness in him — I must not mistake it for a wavering confidence but identify it as the tremble of excitement one must feel as spontaneous creation rushes out. His arms bounce at his sides as he shakes the mixture, moving with the sureness of one born with maracas in hand. Perhaps he’s not a theatre student but studying percussion.

I receive my drink and take a hesitant sip. It is my role to crown the achievement and I don’t want to let him down. Genius can be so fragile. But I am relieved from my responsibility — the drink is good.

I suggest to my friend that we retire to the sofa, which has freed up. But my friend knows better. He looks at the bartender, who confirms that yes, it is reserved. Ah, well that explains the emptiness all around! Here I was thinking that it made sense for it be quiet on a Tuesday at 7pm, but no, the apparent lull in business is, in fact, the peak of exclusivity!

So we enjoy our drinks at the bar, and a man sitting by himself nearby engages in some light delightful chat about Louis XIV with the bartender, who gleefully remarks: Ha ha! Louis XIV! They then move on to a topic that resonates even more deeply and thus draws a personal confession: Ah, nostalgia.. I live for that stuff.

Inspiration for writing style: Tom Wolfe's 1970 article Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's.