Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Green Light via Instagram

By Claire Mainprize

September 14, 2023

In a world where each new modern bar is trying to out-market and out-modernize the last, speakeasies are a refreshing relic from the past.

It makes all the sense in the world, really, because these establishments are intentionally copying the past. More specifically, they’re copying the illegal drinking parlors that sprung up across the country during the Prohibition era (1920 to 1933).

These bars and lounges are typically decked out in Roaring ’20s decor, have a dark and intimate aesthetic, play jazz music or host it live and, most importantly, are purposefully hard to find.

Instead of flashy signs in busy thoroughfares, they’re tucked behind darkened doors in dirty alleys and basements, so you need to know what you’re looking for. And that’s why we’re here. Below, you’ll find instructions on how to find the 12 best speakeasies across the Tar Heel State—plus what to expect and order once you finally find them).

The Merchant

Raleigh

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Merchant NC via Instagram

Imagine the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, but it’s a vintage vending machine in an old factory that leads you to a dark and sultry cocktail bar. To access The Merchant—a hip, new speakeasy in Raleigh that opened during the pandemic—you have to ascend a flight of stairs and pull on an old, red vending machine that serves as the door to the bar. In true speakeasy fashion, unless you know it’s there, you’d walk right past it.

Once inside, visitors are dazzled by the array of unique cocktails like Smoke & Daggers, which comes in a smoke-billed box and is made with whiskey, egg white, maple syrup, and a red wine float. Although the food menu is meager, some reviewers have said the sliders are the best they’ve ever had.

Blind Elephant

Wilmington

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Blind Elephant via Instagram

The only signage marking this tucked-away, Wilmington gem is a sign with an elephant on it. “I have to admit when my girlfriends started walking down an alley to go to this establishment I was hesitant,” one Yelp reviewer wrote. But she was in for a surprise (one that ended in a five-star rating).

Once you pay the $5 membership fee (which lasts an entire year), you’ll be ushered into a dark, intimate space where an old movie is usually projected onto one wall while portraits of infamous gangsters line the rest of them.

The menu of unique cocktails has made it a favorite among locals—especially those who consider themselves bourbon aficionados—as it hasn’t become a tourist hot spot yet. So keep it on the D.L.

Tip: If you’re planning a private party, rent The Volstead Room upstairs, where the fee includes a bartender, security, a password, and plenty of privacy.

The Cotton Room

Charlotte

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Not to be confused with the wedding venue in downtown Durham, Charlotte’s Cotton Room (notably harder to find on the internet and IRL) is “a Southern-inspired Speakeasy with cocktails that incorporate local flavors with a comfortable environment.”

It’s housed in Belfast Mill, a bar located in an open-air cotton market built during the height of the city’s textile industry in the early 1900s. Many of the original features are still intact, from the skylights and exposed rafters to the original floor and brick walls.

Remarks from reviewers include “it’s [a] small, little classy place with great music and a nice vibe,“ “Cocktails go down too easily here,” “Their old fashioneds are the best in town,” and “Get here early and really absorb the feel of this wonderful little nugget in the CLT.” It’s also one of the Brevard Whiskey Club’s venues, which comes with tons of perks for local whiskey lovers.

The Crow & Quill

Asheville

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Crow & Quill via Instagram

To find what one Yelp reviewer called “the sexiest bar in Asheville,” look for lanterns near a door marked “106” on North Lexington Avenue. If it’s any help, it’s in the same row of businesses as Tiger Mountain and Static Age Records. You wouldn’t expect to find such a hopping bar behind such a plain door, but that’s the magic of The Crow & Quill.

One Yelp reviewer put it best when they said, “The place had a surreal vibe, best I can describe it is a cross between the Twilight Zone ride at Disneyland and a goth bar from the 40s.” Another visitor said, “It was like stepping into a gothic story, a film noir, or perhaps where Poe would be inspired. Visually it was captivating – dried flowers, dim lighting, dark wood tones, antique furniture – it comes from a different time.”

While you’re there, order a gin cocktail (as they’re reportedly all delicious) or a rare bourbon from their monstrous list.

Watts and Ward

Raleigh

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of Watts & Ward via Instagram

Raleigh’s Watts and Ward is more than just a speakeasy. Sure, it has the typical elements: a secretive location in the basement of The Montague Building, Prohibition-themed decor, and exotic cocktails. But it also has four different bars—The Mud Room, Main Bar, Patio, and Library—and regularly hosts compelling events like Tarot Tuesdays, live jazz, and comedy shows.

The tagline of the place is “A Noble Experiment,” and considering its band of regulars and scores of five-star Yelp reviews, it’s safe to say the experiment is a success. In particular, reviewers rave about the refreshing Carolina Lily cocktail and old-timey aesthetic.

Aunty Betty’s Gin and Absinthe Bar

Raleigh

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of Aunty Betty’s Gin and Absinthe Bar via Instagram

Morgan Street Food Hall in the Warehouse District has quickly become a staple among Raleigh foodies, but most of them probably have no idea that one of the best speakeasies in the city is right under their noses. Nestled between delicious, local food stalls at the north end of the food hall (right by Iyla’s Southern Kitchen) is a small, unmarked door. When you open it, you’ll find yourself in a chill, plant-filled bar with easygoing bartenders and well-made cocktails.

One reviewer said, “You truly feel hidden in a sparkly green cocoon.” Others recommended the Negroni of the Century or the $15 Dealer’s Choice.

Foundation

Raleigh

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of Foundation via Instagram

There are tons of well-known restaurants and bars along Fayetteville Street—downtown Raleigh’s famed pedestrian mall. But one of the least-known joints might just be one of the best. To find Foundation, look for the red, neon sign bearing its name then take the stairs down to the basement.

Because passersby would have no idea there’s a bar down there, in addition to the fact that it’s relatively small with exposed brick and low lighting, this place definitely exudes an intimate and exclusive vibe. Visitors who come based on word of mouth are sure to join the list of regulars after their first time.

One reviewer does warn that visitors might feel “slightly claustrophobic,” but even that reviewer still gave the place five stars. It’s also worth noting that there’s no kitchen here, so be sure to fill up before you come.

The Green Light

Raleigh

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The name of this speakeasy comes from the only clue you’ll have that you’ve found the place: a little, green light that glows outside of The Architect. Once inside the Raleigh bar, head upstairs and keep your eyes peeled for a bookcase, which doubles as the door to The Green Light.

The secret room used to be an architect’s office, so it’s an intimate and cozy little atmosphere only amplified by candlelit tables and bare-bulb light fixtures. Visitors say the cocktails are “OUT OF THIS WORLD,” but recommend booking a table ahead of time, as the space only sits 30 or so individuals.

The Blind Barbour

Raleigh

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Blind Barbour via Instagram

The Blind Barbour is yet another (literally) hidden gem in Raleigh. Boasting an impressive 4.9 rating on Yelp, this speakeasy is known for its bourbon-tasting events, knowledgeable bartenders, and extensive cocktail menu, so you wouldn’t expect to find it in a mostly abandoned neighborhood strip mall.

As one reviewer put it, it’s “one of the best cocktail bars in Raleigh but off the beaten path so you don’t have to deal with finding parking.” Major win. But shhhh, let’s keep this little secret between us, shall we?

Backstage Lounge

Charlotte

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of BackStage Lounge at SouthBound via Instagram

Backstage Lounge is your friendly neighborhood speakeasy (that is, if you live in Charlotte’s South End). While getting in is no small task, it certainly is a fun one. First, go behind SouthBound and down the hallway of Modern Classics Grooming Lounge. Then, go down the mural-filled hallway until you see a phone booth. Pick up the phone inside and give the secret code (posted on the bar’s social media accounts each week). If you nail it, the nearby door will open just for you.

Although there’s no membership fee, the SouthBound website says, “There are a few unique surprises inside the speakeasy for discovery in hopes regular guests feel like they are in the know members of an exclusive club.” Said regulars praise the bar’s holiday pop-ups and tried-and-true old fashioned cocktails.

The Pink Moon Bar

Asheville

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of The Pink Moon Bar via Instagram

The Pink Moon Bar is another one that requires a password. To find it, check the bar’s daily Instagram Stories, then head to the secret spot in West Asheville (behind the karaoke bar called Double Crown) to enjoy natural wine en plein air.

The bar definitely attracts hipsters, and even famous residents like singer Angel Olsen, who included it in her Guide to Asheville. It’s the perfect place to share a bottle or two with old friends while making new ones.

Antidote Bar

Asheville

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Hidden Near You: How to Find North Carolina’s Best Speakeasies and Secret Bars

Photo courtesy of Antidote Bar via Instagram

Last year, Livability listed the best hidden bars in every state, and for North Carolina, the award went to the much-loved Antidote Bar in Asheville. Although this shoutout made the place worth mentioning, we put this one last on the list because it’s not really “hidden,” and therefore doesn’t fully count.

The reason the outlet included it is because it’s a private club, which certainly gives it an air of exclusivity—that is until you realize membership costs just a penny. Yep, you heard that right: Joining this club will only put you back a single cent.

Once you’re on the list, you can experience the three-story bar that has a 1900s apothecary aesthetic. There’s also a Fever-Tree Botanical Bar and an onsite craft distillery called Chemist Spirits, which offers tours and gin tastings. If you’re all about cool vibes and even cooler cocktails, this place is for you. It only loses points because it’s a badly kept secret.

READ MORE: Eat Fresh: 9 Farm-to-Table Restaurants You Must Try in NC

 

Author

  • Claire Mainprize

    Claire Mainprize is a writer and editor who covers the intersections of pop culture, lifestyle, and spirituality. Find more of her work at ClaireMainprize.com.

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