Sneakeasy, Part 2: A Slice of Pizza, A Life of Crime


  • Fernando de Sousa, Wikimedia Commons
Show: Drinks at the Flatiron Lounge, Flatiron District, New York, NY.

Food: One deliciously greasy and huge slice of New York pizza.

Difficulty: Medium. Pizza is a messy food with a limited temperature range within which it is fully delicious. Thus, it requires extensive repackaging. While my sneaking tote is generally quite stylish as well as useful, this dressier occasion required a more petite evening bag.

Last week, I took a look at Prohibition's impact on American food culture and on the cult of the celebrity criminal through the lens of Chinese food snuck into Public Enemies. This week I'd like to examine prohibition in general -- with a small "p" -- and why it adds its indelible soupçon of delight to mundane activities.

Last weekend, in St. Louis, I could have done all of the following without driving more than ten minutes, total: drink absinthe, smoke a hookah, take in a burlesque show and go to a speakeasy. This weekend, I was in New York, where the only part of the previous statement that has ever been unusual has been the driving. All of these things are legal in both cities, and all are popular enough to inspire widespread casual enjoyment beyond their loyal subcultures.

What's the attraction? There was much discussion over the weekend. The consensus was that all of these current trends represent the same kind of safe exoticism that Chinese food provided the larger American culture during Prohibition. In each of them exists an exoticism of both place and time as well as the ability to show off unusual knowledge and a sophisticated palate. They are brief jaunts of historical tourism to the sanitized underbelly of other times, drinking Colonial-style hard cider without having to talk to interpreters about the fact that the men who wrote the Constitution owned slaves or having to take your mother to Ye Olde Pub for peanut soup.


My favorite sneaky club is a perfect example of this guilty pleasure. The Thaxton Building is a lovingly restored Art Deco marvel with movie-star murals on the inside and a gleaming white façade that makes it stand out on its Downtown block like the only crown in a crooked but improving smile. You can rent it out for receptions -- ideal if you're marrying your childhood sweetheart who also happens to be a famed Clark Gable impersonator.

What sneaky people want, however, is downstairs. Ignore the front door and cut around back to a trash-choked murder alley and remind yourself that the fear is the soul of the thrill. Look for the lighthouse-orange glow of the single light bulb and ring the doorbell half concealed in the shadowed grotto of exposed bricks. Wait for the man to come up and let you into the building's velvety basement. (If you know the week's rotating password, you pay half cover).

In the Speakeasy at the Thaxton, with blue light pooling and unspooling around clutches of retro furniture, you are like the stag leaping on your wrought-metal grates: preserved in a single moment of action and yet perfectly static. Every time I've visited, the crowd has been small and expectant, as if a wall-shaking party is going to break out at any moment -- but never quite does. Try the house "bathtub" gin in any mixed drink or the orange-infused and surprisingly potable moonshine.

I wanted to capture the same sort of feeling for a friend of mine who was fool enough to move out of St. Louis before the Thaxton opened but kind enough to host me for a weekend in New York City. My goal was to find a place with a similar speakeasy feel within a reasonable distance of my friend's apartment. The Flatiron Lounge certainly didn't disappoint. Long and thin like the building itself, the Lounge's invitingly curved whitewashed walls showcased the different light effects from interlacing glows of custom stained glass, tiny tabletop oil lamps and a whole wall of glittering blue tiles grounded by solid leather booths and velvet club chairs.

The atmosphere matched up to the Thaxton in more than looks. There was no secret door, no password, but while we were there, a sort of impromptu birthday party broke out with the same air of casual serendipitous camaraderie that always seem to happen in the Thaxton's embracing shadows. A man who didn't seem to know any of the dozen people at the birthday party came up to them and climbed up on a chair, planting one foot between their drinks and belted out "Happy Birthday." Captain Morgan sounds like Marilyn Monroe? In the Flatiron, he does. The whole joint broke out into applause.

And that's when I took a giant slice of pizza out of my handbag.

When I dream about pizza, I dream of stopping at a place in Morningside Heights with an inconsequential name and getting a perfect slice of herb-pocked cheese that I have to fold to stuff into my snapping maw. The place my friend frequents is even better than my dream pizza, not least because it can be bundled up and taken to a nice bar then surreptitiously consumed under the table. As with all particularly greasy foods, the secret is to supplement your aluminum foil overwrap with an inner layer of wax paper or, preferably, parchment paper. This helps to retain/blot the grease while preventing the delicate cheese from sticking to the aluminum foil.

People always ask me if I've snuck a whole pizza into a movie before. Of course I have -- the secret is to think outside of the delivery box and rearrange and re-wrap the slices. It's a difficult thing to do alone, and the greatest success requires a cabal of like-minded sneaks. No matter the toppings available, nothing makes pizza taste better than eating it somewhere you're not supposed to do so.

Last week I determined that all bootleggers were sneaks and wondered if all sneaks were, correspondingly, bootleggers. It's true that we are: in the way that's fun; in the way that's a parody of crime; in the way that makes a game of transgression. We bootleg not only in the sense of enjoying pleasures that have been denied us but also in borrowing the idea of crime from men who guessed at the freedoms of San Francisco when they looked out over the leaden bay from Alcatraz.

Dara Strickland is a leading expert on sneaking food and drink into the movies. She reports on her exploits for Gut Check (from an undisclosed location) every Monday.


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