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SAVORY Explores: The Rise of Vancouver Speakeasies

Anu Hara headshot

Anu Hara

Nov 09 2023

Hidden in plain sight, Vancouver speakeasies continue to prevail.

Wandering down the broth-scented streets of East Georgia, rich red and yellow gold colors fill the lanes. Bright signages alerts passersby of the noodle shop that has leased here for decades. This is Chinatown – home of mooncake bakeries, dirt-cheap souvenirs, and sandalwood incense. Among the grandmothers haggling over Georgette fabrics and the cries of vagabonds, there exists a dumpling shop near Gore Avenue with a story to tell. 

Pictured: Laowai exterior

Named Blnd Tger, the eatery does not seem at all unsightly in Chinatown. The shop walls pay homage to Shanghai calendar girls, the envisioned ‘Modern Girls’ of the 1930s. Bright pink blush on the apples of their cheeks, and the same color applied to their eyelids. Tempting, demure, and powerful all at once. It is high-glamor of a bygone era. These posters are more than decor, they hint at what is to come.  

Blnd Tger may appear to be just another shop that sells soup dumplings, but beyond its pan-fried bluff, it is a front for a speakeasy called Laoawai. Speakeasies were hidden, secret bars created as a result of the government imposing Prohibition, which legally prohibited the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. But, people still wanted to drink, thus the secretive speakeasies were born. They were housed in unsuspecting places like barbershops and basements and required secret passwords to gain admittance to keep the authorities away. 

For Laowai, finding the location is the easy part; it’s figuring out the clever password or phrases to be admitted into the bar, which proves to be another adventure entirely. Blnd Tger has a menu board listing the specials from 1 to 6, including bison momos and cumin lamb dumplings. However, in order to gain access to Laowai, one needs to order the non-existent number 7 special from the cashier. Doing so prompts the worker to open the industrial freezer door just beyond the vat of crackling sesame oil to the world of Laowai. 

Pictured: Laowai exterior

As you make your way into the hidden bar, you forget that you aren’t in a 20th-century prohibition-era basement skirting the fuzz to get a sip of hooch. Deep, rich emerald hues fill the space, and the masterful usage of lighting makes the color simultaneously more loud and timid. The luxe velvet chairs and ornate peacock lamps give the bar an upscale, bold, and moody feel. The interior evokes feelings of 1930s Shanghai glamor and its devotion to a gilded nightlife. 

Prohibition in British Columbia began in 1917 and lasted only four years. Its lofty goal of curbing the consumption of alcohol by making it illegal had the very opposite effect. Hidden speakeasy bars exploded in popularity and drunkenness soared. Making alcohol illegal did little to deter people. Booze was consumed in secret and the hidden bars were frequented by the young and old, the rich and the poor. An unintended consequence of prohibition was its glamorization of drinking, which is something that today’s modern establishments are trying to emulate.  

Pictured: Laowai interior

Prohibition occurred right on the cusp of the roaring 20s, which caused the perfect storm. The period was a rebellious time in history only further capitalized upon by the new speakeasies. These were the places to see live jazz bands, patrons dancing freely to the new crazes, and women and men drinking in the same space, which was something not seen before. The idea of doing something dangerous, illegal, and purely for enjoyment was tantalizing. Today’s speakeasies try to play upon this forbidden aspect. These new hidden bars are moody and sexy, they don’t feel like the neighborhood bars that people frequent for happy hour.  

With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s movie The Great Gatsby in 2013, there has definitely been an uptick in Roaring 20s and Prohibition-era-themed parties. Perhaps the emergence of speakeasies, particularly in North America can be attributed to that. It’s wild, stylish, and above everything else, it is a very good time. While alcohol is no longer illegal, the new modern-day speakeasies enjoy the secretive nature and lively reputation that their predecessors brought. And it’s more than a gimmick; Laowai has been rated as the winner of the best new bars in the country as determined by the reputable team behind Canada’s 100 Best. 

Pictured: Bagheera exterior

Laowai’s sister speakeasy bar, Bagheera, is just a short walk from Main Street. Like Laowai, Bagheera is also in disguise. This time, instead of a dumpling shop, it cloaks itself as Happy Valley Turf Club. The inside walls have posters of racing horse statistics, a jockey’s uniform framed behind glass, and horse racing odds etched in chalk. The password to get in is to place a wager on King Louie. 

This unlocks your entrance to Bagheera and you walk through a narrow, winding corridor to what appears to be in the interior of a lavish railroad car. It is lively inside, made better with Louis Prima crooning on the radio with his unmistakable New Orleans-style jazz. 

Boasting a similarly awe-inducing interior to Laowai, Bagheera’s design includes old colonial themes. A beautiful tapestry of creams, golds, and dark violets paints a scene of floating lily pads, regal peacocks, and the flora of the land. A love letter to British colonial rule in India, Bagheera is named after author Rudyard Kipling’s black panther in The Jungle Book. Traditional Indian wedding necklaces are on display behind the beautifully illuminated bar counter. The drink and food menu is cleverly embedded in a newspaper and the aromas of spice dishes served in brass thalis fill the small bar. 

Pictured: Bagheera interior

Up until very recently, no pictures were allowed to be taken inside Laowai and Bagheera. Both bars strictly forbade patrons from snapping photos, creating an even more secretive vibe. There was no way of searching for the interior in Google Images or using Instagram’s location feature. One would instead have to count on first-hand accounts from friends and online reviews gushing about how lovely the bars were inside. This creates more incentive to visit the speakeasies as one needs to see what they are missing out on. The no-photos rule was really taking the modern restaurant marketing playbook and setting it on fire. Instead, the owners of the bars capitalized on the collective consciousness of FOMO and threw it in everyone’s face. 

Nowadays, you can see someone tagged a restaurant on social media and go there the next day. It’s nice to have a challenge. The fun of searching for the coordinates, the giddiness and trickery of getting the secret passphrase just right to gain access. 

Even the lead-up to a new speakeasy popping up is a bit of an anomaly. Clues without context appear on your social media feed with an ominous tone and feel. The marketing team behind these speakeasies fully commits to being shrouded in mystery and suspense. Part of the strategy leading up to the new opening is using Instagram stories to provide clues and hints, teasing Vancouverites where the new location is so it makes them interested. Even the Instagram handles for the bars are @whereislaowai and @whereisbagheera. 

Just like the illegal taverns of the past, these bars greatly emphasize cocktails. Gin seems to be the focus here and mixologists play an essential role. As they confidently move from bottle to jar from behind the LED bar, the cocktail shaker becomes an extension of themselves. Drinks are the tricks up the speakeasies’ sleeves and the mixologists are the magicians. You don’t go to a speakeasy for the food. These bars aim to appeal to an elite group of people who don’t mind shelling out $20 for a cocktail when they’re just excited to find the place and get in the door. 

In an age of struggling post-COVID restaurants whose livelihood depends on the number of patrons that pass through their doors every night, why would a bar want to be an enigmatic speakeasy in the first place? Restaurants and bars are struggling in the city, and getting more patrons through the doors makes the most economic sense, so why is coyness a main tactic? And how does a bootleg operation from the 1920s, with its necessary secretive nature have a place in contemporary Vancouver today? 

Is it the interactive nature of it all? The patrons as participants? They are not merely observers but a part of a more extensive experience. At a time when restaurants are struggling to cement their longevity in the post-pandemic world, how does one survive with so much exclusivity?  

Is the popularity rooted in historical nostalgia? Are patrons yearning to live the myth of wilder times in the past? Given Vancouver’s reputation as a costly city, leisurely exploring bars don’t have the same appeal as years past. Now, if you are going to go out, it might as well be to the hottest, hippest bar that you’ve never seen before! 

Quite simply, it does seem the answer is in the exclusivity, excitement, and the interactive nature of it all—the stumbling upon a place that not everyone knows and being in on the secret. 

Speakeasies are usually smaller bars that have limited capacity and, therefore are more challenging to get into. Online reviews for both Laowai and Bagheera, which talk about how difficult it is to get in, have helped the bars develop an air of exclusiveness. So not only are they hidden and purposely hard to find, but even if you do find them, there’s no telling whether or not you’ll be getting in. 

Speakeasies are a different experience entirely. The allure of curiosity is the selling point, and the communal hunting of the location and discovering the passphrases makes it an amusing experience for all. Bagheera and Laowai may be the newest speakeasies in town, but they certainly are not the only ones.

Here is a list of other hidden bars/speakeasy-ish spots to explore in Vancouver: 

If you decide to head out on a quest to find one of these hidden gems, be sure you are ready to find a modern-day version of  “open sesame” to unlock the hidden door! Today’s speakeasies aim to make the bar-going experience both engaging and exclusive. Call it a fad, a gimmick, or a much-needed bit of excitement in our hard-to-survive city.