Secret Bars Deliver Prohibition Era Atmosphere to Ninth Ave. | chelseanow.com

Secret Bars Deliver Prohibition Era Atmosphere to Ninth Ave.

The copper bathtub is a great prop for photos at Bathtub Gin. | Photo by Rania Richardson

BY RANIA RICHARDSON | The long lines outside a tiny coffee shop are a puzzle to many Chelsea residents strolling along Ninth Ave. at night. By day, a single barista makes caffeinated beverages in a space that barely fits two stools — but at night, an unmarked door opens to reveal a hopping 1920s-style cocktail bar. Inspired by Prohibition Era speakeasies with secret entrances and crude moonshine, the very popular Bathtub Gin sits behind the Stone Street Coffee Company at 132 Ninth Ave. (btw. W. 18th & 19th Sts.).

Passersby may order espressos or vanilla lattes from an outside window or inside counter. Later, a security guard will direct them to the back room lounge. Dapper bartenders sporting black vests mix elaborate drinks in a space that includes seating for 65 people. At the center of the room, a shimmering copper bathtub represents the “bathtub gin,” or homemade spirits made in amateur conditions when drinking was illegal from 1920 to 1933. Cocktails were created to mask the unpleasant taste of cheap grain alcohol and thus, a whole new cocktail culture was born. It doesn’t take much inebriation for guests to jump in the huge tub to take Instagram photos.

Dave Oz, a CPA-turned-investment banker, owns and operates the businesses. The 2008 economic crisis galvanized his interest in a career change that would fulfill his passion for hospitality. In earlier days, he had worked at nightclubs — in every aspect of the business — from serving drinks to manning the door. His best friend from high school, Peter Poulakakos, now a Lower Manhattan restaurateur, is a partner in the joint businesses. The coffee roasting plant and wholesaler owned by Poulakakos supplies the front half of the shop.

Business owner Dave Oz in his new establishment, The 18th Room. | Photo by Noah Fecks

It took two years to find the ideal spot, which was formerly a Spanish restaurant. “I saw a lot happening in Chelsea, all the construction going on, hotels and office buildings being built, and I saw a future here,” Oz recalled. “I knew people needed more places to go.” He built the space from scratch, evoking the period with the look of Victorian lighting and furniture, patterned wallpaper, and pressed tin ceilings. For five years, he lived in an apartment above the bar and has since moved a few blocks away. He finds Chelsea “neighborhood-y,” like Brooklyn, where he grew up.

Bathtub Gin serves an array of vintage-inspired cocktails at $16 each, many with exotic flavors such as guava, tobacco syrup made in-house, or mastiha. Gin was the predominant drink in the 1920s and, along with a full selection of other spirits, the bar has more than 30 different brands of the namesake liquor. The most popular cocktail is the Gin-Gin Cup, made of gin shaken with lemon, honey, fresh ginger, lavender extract, and sage. The Martinez, a predecessor of the classic martini, is Oz’s personal favorite.

Jazz bands and burlesque acts entertain the crowds at designated times of the week, in what becomes a standing room only affair. There is a standard menu of food options, with a two-hour time limit on tables. The music can be loud, and the atmosphere is raucous.

Stone Street Coffee Company is flanked by The 18th Room to the left, and Hot Sichuan to the right. | Photo by Rania Richardson

On April 25, Oz debuted a new venue, The 18th Room, named for the 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, which ushered in Prohibition. When the hair salon next door at 134 Ninth Ave. closed, he jumped at the chance to open a second space to add another nightclub option to the block. “It has the same theme as Bathtub Gin, but a different vibe,” he said, “It’s quieter and more upscale, modern, and relaxed.”

The 18th Room is decorated in an art deco style and focuses on individually crafted cocktails based on the spirit and flavor preferences of guests. A seasoned mixologist created a set menu of options for those who do not want the “concierge” service. There is room to sit 60 people, and there will be no standing. What appears to be a coffee supply store fronts the new space, and there is no passageway between Bathtub Gin and The 18th Room, although staff and storage will be shared.

As of this writing, the modest exterior of The 18th Room has no sign, and a full menu is still in the works. Oz hopes to see the place grow slowly and organically, as an elegant and intimate foil to the wild party next door.

Barista Simon Ratnikov likes a small space where he can run the shift. | Photo by Rania Richardson