The DL on New York’s ‘Invisible’ Restaurants—Part 2

The funky interior at La Esquina

During Prohibition, speakeasies were an expedient—a means to an end for those hell-bent on boozing at a time when, for better or worse, lifting a glass to your lips was illegal. Nowadays, when you can drink whenever and wherever you want (within reason), going to a door at the end of an alleyway and inconspicuously knocking twice is a little bit like dressing up in your parents’ clothing—after you yourself have reached adulthood.

The alleyway that ends at Freemans (Freeman Alley, off Rivington Street, bet the Bowery and Chrystie St, 212-420-0012)—a mews, actually—seems to have been chosen more for its charm than for its underground appeal. Fittingly, the room beyond is more clubby than it is sinister. The food, too, is squeaky clean, from three cheese macaroni to roasted wild striped bass to rabbit roulade with celery root, apples, bacon, and chanterelles. Just to prove they mean business, the cocktail list has subdivisions, such as “warm and soothing” and “dark and complex.” Whenever will this blight called Prohibition end?

Can you keep a secret? Don’t worry about it. Neither can the people behind PDT (113 St Marks Place, bet First Ave and Ave A, 212-614-0386), who, despite the name—the letters stand for “Please Don’t Tell”—are happy to receive publicity. They even maintain a website for their latterday speakeasy, albeit an enigmatic one that features nothing more than a picture of the bar, the name, and the phone number. Considering the way in which you access that bar—via a vintage phone booth inside Crif Dogs—KGB might have been a more appropriate letter combo. The Crif connection extends to the menu, which is limited to hot dogs (deep-fried, no less), burgers, and fries: food to renew your capacity to imbibe. Speaking of which, Crif also serves shakes, though for liquid refreshment you’ll probably want to go the cocktail route. Most customers do.

Fool me twice. . . They do at La Esquina (114 Kenmare Street, at Lafayette St, 646-613-7100), first by disguising the exterior to look like a classic retro diner. Enter and you find yourself face to face not with meatloaf and eggs over easy but with tacos in imponderable variety. The deception doubles down when you search for the entrance to the “brasserie”—the restaurant’s inner sanctum—which, you ultimately discover, is accessed through a door that bears the warnings “No Admittance” and “Employees Only.” Here, the Mexican theme is continued, but with a step up in the direction of refinement. An order for carne asada yields a grilled New York strip steak, offered up with a gratin of pickled roasted chiles.

Read Part 1 of this series.