Behind the Black Door: Upstairs at Tavern Law

Let me say one thing right here at the start: I don't like restaurants with special rooms. Back rooms, tatami rooms, champagne rooms, private party complexes, VIP lairs, secret sex bunkers--whatever. I don't like them first because, from the business side, it just seems like a ridiculous waste of space to me. If you've got the floor capacity and you're paying rent on it, fucking use it, and don't just sit there holding out for some mythical party of thirty high-rollers that's probably never going to arrive.

Second, I don't like the mentality of the private room. A restaurant is a public space--a place where you go to eat dinner among strangers. Part of the charm, the thing that makes going out an actual event, is that you're in public and, ostensibly, should act that way--which means not getting drunk and barfing on your date, not having loud fights on the banquette, not tying your napkin around your face, holding a lamb chop like a pistol and demanding the valuables of the guests seated around you. If a private room is your thing, why not just stay home and eat a dozen chicken wings on your couch in your underwear? That's about as private as it gets.

That said, there are rare exceptions to my overwhelming dislike of the private/public divide--places where the split makes sense because of design, architecture or style. Korean family barbecue restaurants that allow their deep booths to be screened off from the rest of the floor are alright by me because getting a table there is almost like renting a cottage and cooking out. The servers bring the food, they light the grill, and you start cooking and serving all those gathered close around you. I'm occasionally okay with private spaces in sushi restaurants if you're there for some kind of epic omakase experience and don't want the rest of the world to see you moaning and grunting and stuffing your face with endangered species. In this case, the private room is more to shield the rest of the world from witnessing your orgiastic pleasure because, really, no one wants to see a grown man (like me) getting all freaky with a plate of octopus, no matter how good it is.

And then there is the upstairs "speakeasy" at Tavern Law.

From the start, I was foursquare against this. Mostly because every time I went there I would see crowds of gently weaving beautiful people holding martini glasses like they were born with them in their hands, approaching the large, bolted door in the middle of the small main dining room, picking up the olde-timey phone on the wall and asking some unseen presence for permission to ascend the stairs into an upstairs room that I was just sure held all manner of bizarre earthly delights. Strongmen juggling midgets. Platters of sizzling, fried ortolan being consumed by expatriate royalty. Naked women doing terrible things with bar garnishes. That sort of thing.

Most of the time, the beautiful people were granted entrance, slipped through the door and shut it behind them, never to be seen again. Some of the time, though, they would be refused and would have to make the Walk of Shame back to their tables, knowing that some flaw in their character, dress or carriage had caused them to be denied. Now under normal circumstances, I'm a fairly confident guy. I can handle rejection, shame, and regularly embarrass myself in public just for the sick thrill of doing so. But something about that door and that telephone intimidated me so, during my review meals, during return visits to score fried chicken, potatoes and cocktails constructed from ingredients I could barely pronounce, I always avoided it--wondering what was happening on the other side of that locked door, sure, but never really willing to try and find out for myself until a couple days ago when, well-lubricated by drink and surrounded by enough friends to spread the potential shame of rejection around, we all collectively decided to give it a shot.

And lo and behold, it worked! Come to find, there were no ortolan, no midgets, no foxy strippers working the crowds in the upstairs room--just artistic (meaning old and black-and-white) nudes on the walls of the narrow hallway leading up and, at the top of the stairs, bright lights, a second bar, a second bartender and a bunch of people very committed to their enjoyment of the bottle and cocktail shaker.

The "speakeasy" at Tavern Law (called "Needle and Thread") is really nothing more than a strange accident of design--a second, upstairs room hanging directly above the downstairs bar which, when fully utilized, adds maybe twenty additional seats to the tight confines of Tavern Law's floor. But still, it is beautiful. Comfortable, once you've made it through the vault door. Cozy after you hear it clang shut behind you. And the service? That's what makes it worth taking a chance on the downstairs rotary phone. Here, drinks are the sole focus, and the bartender is there to make sure that every single person under his care gets just precisely what they want (or need) to make it through the night. There isn't even a cocktail menu for the upstairs bar, just a raised eyebrow, a questioning glance and a, "So what do you like..." from the man on the other side of the long oak.

We spent a fair amount of time slouching around the far end of the bar there, drinking shots of Del Maguey mezcal (from one of the very few bars in the city that stocks the stuff) and chatting about the things that people do when they're completely lit on super-high-end cactus juice. And when we were finally done, we headed back downstairs to the land of the mortals and those not worthy of (or interested in) the pleasures waiting behind that mysterious black door. I knew that the next time I was at Tavern Law, I probably wouldn't pick up the phone. I would probably be content with my seat at the downstairs bar, a Seelbach Cocktail and some fried chicken.

But even as I walked out the door, I wondered... Maybe they just bring the midgets and the ortolans and the dancing girls in on another night. Maybe, one of these days, I was going to have to try again.

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