Behind the Secret Door

Velvet ropes, burly doormen and screaming paparazzi are so passé. In New York City, the hottest bars and restaurants keep a low profile—so low, in fact, you may have a hard time finding them without a GPS. Discretion is the watchword when it comes to getting through the (unmarked) doors of these secret Manhattan nightspots, but once inside, you'll be rewarded with swank furnishings, lovingly crafted cocktails and the discreet thrill of having made it to the inner sanctum.

La Esquina: The jumping taco stand on a busy corner is just a front for the real action. Call ahead for reservations, and a host will whisper your name into a walkie-talkie, then point you down some stairs. Make your way through the kitchen, and you'll emerge in a low-ceilinged Mexican restaurant and bar. Exposed crumbling brick walls, wrought-iron fixtures, candles flickering in colored glass jars and a worn plank floor lend the feel of a pirates' dungeon hideaway—if pirates drank fresh-fruit Margaritas ($12; 106 Kenmare Street; 646-613-7100).

Milk and Honey: Finagle the unlisted number from a friend (or just ask at sister bar Little Branch, 20 Seventh Avenue South), then call or text for a reservation at this speak-easy hidden behind an unmarked door in Chinatown. Once you're buzzed in, take the stairs down to a cozy, narrow room with pressed-tin ceilings, plush booths and a tiny bar. The jazz is kept at a conversation-friendly level, and the bartenders look the part, with suspenders and well-tended facial hair. No plebeian drink menu here: your server will ask for your preference in fruit, liquor and spice, then shake you up a customized cocktail ($15; 134 Eldridge Street).

PDT: The initials stand for Please Don't Tell, but this bar is too good to stay secret for long. Make your way past the videogames at the unassuming hot-dog joint Crif Dogs and knock on the phone booth. It will open to reveal an intimate cocktail lounge. Reservations are required for parties bigger than two, so call ahead, and come hungry: Crif Dogs will happily send over a deep-fried dog to go with your dry martini ($11; 113 St. Marks Place; 212-614-0386).

Death and Company: Keep your head down on the way to this East Village restaurant and lounge: there's no sign, but the name is carved in the concrete sidewalk out front. Inside, black walls, a dark-wood ceiling and low-wattage chandeliers supply a funereal atmosphere. But the crowd is fun, and an extensive menu of $10, $20 and $30 drinks keeps the scene from getting too dour (433 East Sixth Street; 212-388-0882).

Smith and Mills: A single red light bulb with "71" painted on it is the only indication of life beyond the arched wooden doors of this former carriage house on an industrial Tribeca street. Inside, you'll find a sweet nightspot with six aluminum-topped tables and a short zinc bar. The bare light bulbs, salvaged office chairs, plank floors and blue-washed walls give the small room the feel of an artist's atelier. The wine and spirits list is similarly well edited (71 North Moore Street; 212-219-8568).

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