Take a step back in time, and into the cutting-edge of cocktail cultures, in one of Puerto Rico’s Prohibition-era watering holes.
Long celebrated for its legendary nightlife, San Juan has earned the crown as the undisputed party capital of the Caribbean. From throbbing discos to perfectly disheveled dive bars, the revelry spills out into the streets on any given night along the cobbled lanes of the Old City, the funky byways of Santurce and the gleaming beachside strolls of Condado and Isla Verde.
Mix in an evolving gastronomic scene and cocktail culture that are already unmatched in the region and that can hold their own with any foodie favorite destination, and it’s clear to see why Puerto Rico’s capital city scene continues to shine long after the sun goes down – and often even after it comes up again.
From lively sidewalk cafes and gastropub grub hubs to DJ-fueled dance floors and the roar of sports bars, Puerto Rico after dark serves up a place for all tastes.
While full-tilt fun can be easily found around virtually every corner, those in the know are finding urbane oases in the middle of the mix in speakeasy style bars, an emerging trend that traces its roots back to the Prohibition-era watering holes where the well-heeled kept the party going.
Cool and cosmopolitan, these clandestine hideaways may be tucked inside known establishments, essentially hidden in plain sight provided you can spot the secret entrance or, in some cases, are privy to the proper password that will open a path that is both a step back and in time and a step forward in Puerto Rico’s cocktail culture.
A good place to start the search is in Miramar, an increasingly hip but somewhat overlooked neighborhood that sits on the radar between Old San Juan, Condado, and Santurce.
But first thing’s first as zeroing in a speakeasy may first require a foray in cyberspace where Oveja Negra, a hidden bar located inside Mexican eatery Bartola, posts a daily password on Instagram. Secret code secured, the next task is to flush out the door posing as a bottle-lined shelf.
OK, now you’re in. Intimacy pervades. Vintage décor, sultry sounds, and crafted cocktails blend into a seductive mix. At once timeless while harking back to a time when such simple pleasures were more than a little illicit.
Down the street is Bar La Unidad, identifiable only by the three interlocking rings that mark its otherwise nondescript darkened doorway that leads from the Spartan exterior into an elegant interior. Soft light soaks into the polished mahogany bar and lush leather chairs and banquettes, providing just enough light to let you see the well-tailored bartenders expertly craft signature cocktails.
The sultry setting appears preserved in amber, a tone that is mirrored in the subdued lighting, and the stellar selection of top-shelf, small-batch bourbons, whiskeys and scotches as well as the ice-cold copper cups used to serve some of the mixologists’ stunningly satisfying blends.
As skilled as the staff is behind the bar, the kitchen crew is also up to the task, dishing out expertly executed bar bites ranging from tuna tartar and grilled octopus to sharply presented charcuterie and cheese plates.
Puerto Rico’s original speakeasy took shape inside La Factoria, one of the hottest bars along San Sebastian Street, the cobbled heart of the Old City’s pub scene and home to an epic annual street party that stretches over several days each January.
House-made cocktails are the name of the game at La Factoria, earning the hotspot a legion of locals and top billing among travelers in the few years since the business was opened by a pair of award-winning bartenders.
Step in off the street and sit down for a cocktail that likely combines a measure of some world-class spirit with a dash of house-crafted bitters, lavender syrup or ginger beer. Kick back on a couch under strings of lights as you look out the large open windows on the parade of partiers passing. But don’t stop there. Opt for the orange door and you’ll pass into a secret room where candlelight bouncing off mirrors plays beautifully across artworks and wine-based cocktail and cut crystal.
While their signature cocktails and food menus may vary, a common theme among the capital city’s cozy speakeasy bars is elegance and exclusivity. Their clientele is capped at a certain number meaning that the classic ambiance is never marked by jostling to get the bartenders attention or raised voices trying to be heard above the din. It’s a speakeasy – a place to converse, to sooth your soul, and to leave your cares at the hidden door.