Maybe Orlando, Florida residents feel they must imbibe in secret establishments because a square like Mickey Mouse wouldn’t approve of drinking (although Donald Duck would probably be cool with it; he is a sailor, after all). Or maybe it’s because booze tastes sweeter when you’re drinking it in secret.
Whatever the reason, Orlando — home of Walt Disney World and other theme parks — is home to a growing number of speakeasies. These hidden, secret bars are patterned after the Prohibition-era gin joints of the 1920s, when alcohol was illegal and going to a bar could be a super-clandestine affair out of a spy movie. Hidden locations; furtive, word-of-mouth advertising; secret passwords required for entry — they’re all part of the experience. While the speakeasy scene has been big in larger cities, it’s now hitting Orlando with a vengeance.
"Slowly but surely, more and more places have been popping up as speakeasy-style places," says Victoria Burns, manager of one such establishment, Pharmacy. Orlando foodie expert and Tasty Chomps founder Ricky Ly suggests speakeasy bars, and the unique craft cocktails they tend to offer, boast the kind of retro chic that appeals to local hipsters. “People love to drink something different,” he says.
If you’re visiting Orlando, exploring some of the local speakeasies can make for a fun and refreshingly adult experience within the notoriously kid-friendly confines of Orlando. And because many speakeasies specialize in hand-crafted cocktails, it could be a tasty pursuit as well.
There’s no cough syrup at THIS pharmacy. (Photo: Dana McMahan/Flickr)
"Where the hell is it?"
I had detailed directions on my GPS. And yet, like many speakeasies, Pharmacy was extremely hard for me to find. Tucked in among the many restaurants and bars on Orlando’s Restaurant Row (about 10 minutes from Universal Orlando Resort), Pharmacy keeps its location well-hidden: its main entrance is an unmarked elevator door in the middle of a nondescript breezeway. It was only after walking around for what seemed like an eternity that I was able to locate it.
The entrance to Pharmacy. To make things even more confusing, it’s across from a real elevator. (Photo: Dana McMahan/Flickr)
Well, Pharmacy is supposed to be hard to find. “There’s no sign,” says Pharmacy manager Victoria Burns told me once I (finally) arrived. “We don’t do any type of advertising whatsoever. It’s all word of mouth.”
Once you get past those elevator doors, you find a nicely decorated space split evenly between a bar and restaurant area. “Everything is farm-to-table, so all of our ingredients are local organic and sustainable,” says Burns. “Everything we can make in-house is made in-house.”
That goes for the cocktails. Take Pharmacy’s signature drink: The Pharmacy Manhattan. ”It’s a cool spin on a classic Manhattan” says Burns. “We make our own vermouth.” The concoction is pre-made and bottled, carbonated and poured over ice.
Several Pharmacy specialties are pre-made and carbonated. (Photo: Facebook/Pharmacy)
Pharmacy’s other drinks (or “elixirs,” as they’re described on the menu) follow that same formula. “People are kind of getting back to fresh-squeezed juices and everything being done fresh,” Burns says. “People are seeing the value in hand-crafted cocktails.”
Park Social’s vintage decor (Photo: Facebook/Park Social)
Another highlight of Orlando’s speakeasy scene is located just outside of the city, in the college town of Winter Park. Amid the cluster of attractive shops, bars and restaurants on Park Avenue you’ll find Park Social. Actually, it’s more accurate to say you won’t find it; in the best speakeasy tradition, Park Social is not quite visible from the street — save for a phone booth located directly across from the entrance.
A phone booth serves as Park Social’s doorman. (Photo: Facebook/Park Social)
At this phone booth, you’ll punch in a passcode (you have to call for it beforehand). Once inside, you’ll see that Park Social, like many other speakeasies, has a retro vibe which, unlike many other speakeasies, doesn’t harken back to the 1920s. Park Social is more of a late `60s/early `70s-era speakeasy (guess they had unlicensed bars in that decade too) that looks like Austin Powers’ living room. Colorful vintage furniture, mood lighting, and classic album jackets abound. If you look hard enough you might even find a lava lamp.
The Serpico is like a taste of the `70s in a glass. (Photo: Facebook/Park Social)
The cocktails are also steeped in nostalgia, with names like the “Hot Lips Houlihan,” “Dr. No” and “Serpico.” I went with “the Easy Rider,” which has a base of Bulleit Rye and a minty, flavorful twist.
Hanson’s Shoe Repair
Hanson’s is a must-see destination on any tour of the Orlando speakeasy scene (Photo: Facebook/Hanson’s Shoe Repair)
The crown jewel of the Orlando speakeasy scene is this downtown Orlando favorite. “They’re serious about their drinks,” Tasty Chomps founder Ricky Ly
says about Hanson’s Shoe Repair. “They’re really intense.”
Hanson’s definitely intense about the secretive speakeasy aesthetic. As far as the outside world’s concerned, this is a shoe repair shop, not a bar. When you call ahead for the password (and you’ll want to do it as early as possible; Hanson’s fits only about 20-30 people at a time and fills up quickly), you get a well-coded outgoing message designed to throw off any Eliot Ness G-Men who might be listening in.
"Thank you for calling Hanson’s Shoe Repair," it says. "First-class shoe repair is our specialty. If your shoes have lost their spirit or are prohibiting you from walking properly, then listen carefully for instructions. Please speak easily into the phone receiver to schedule a time to drop off your shoes for repair." If the folks at Hanson’s have room to accommodate you, they’ll text you with the password. And while some speakeasies play fast and loose with the entry rules, Hanson’s does not; no password, no entry (though the door guy might wave you through without one, if you’re by yourself).
Hanson’s House Rules are clearly posted on the stairway leading up to the bar. Word of advice: these rules are taken seriously. (Photo: Facebook/Hanson’s Shoe Repair)
With strictly enforced rules for attire, cell-phone use, gentlemanly behavior, and even your speaking voice — “loud talkers” are immediately shushed by the bartenders — Hanson’s is a place where grown-ups can enjoy grown-up drinks. It’s not uncommon to see patrons dressed in “Gatsby”-inspired 1920s attire. And if the super-intricate menu of craft cocktails confounds you, ask the barkeeps for help. After quizzing me about my taste in cocktails, the bartender free-styled a drink for me that was so good it just about knocked me off my stool.
The cocktail menu is only part of the story: Hanson’s bartenders specialize in off-menu favorites and self-formulated concoctions (Photo: Facebook/Hanson’s Shoe Repair)
Sampling Orlando’s speakeasy scene is a great way to get a glimpse of the non-Disney side of the city. These little dens of cocktail-drenched make-believe are a nice, adult twist on the fantasy worlds of Orlando’s theme parks. So drink up, but not too much: to maneuver all these hidden entrances, intricate codes and passwords at these speakeasies, you’ll need to stay (relatively) sober.