Who knew that when Prohibition was revoked in the U.S., our love affair with bars that have mysterious façades would continue? Despite having the freedom to go out and order a cocktail legally, there’s something intriguing about a bar that’s advertised through word of mouth and has an air of exclusivity surrounding it.
Calgary has its fair share of mixologists creating outstanding libations and creative concoctions in bars and lounges throughout the city. But it seems the trend is toward spots that spark curiosity, offer an experience, or lure patrons in with the promise of discovery.
Whether you have to find a secret door in a bookshelf, head down a clandestine alleyway, or make your way through a bustling pizza joint to reach the cocktails, these secretive spots are the ones currently being talked about the most—oh, the irony.
This hideaway in Victoria Park is famous for its nondescript entrance. Once you find the door you’re looking for, you’ll enter a dim space featuring a wall decorated with gas masks. There’s also an undulating canopy of light made with over 5,000 light bulbs—this and the gas masks are both prime Instagram bait. With Shelter combining elements from high-end hotel bars across the United States and original industrial elements from Berlin and Eastern Europe, you’ll find a unique balance of artful decay and relaxed elegance, a juxtaposition of opulent and casual. The distinctly European setting attracts a well-travelled, affluent crowd and encourages its guests to get cozy, yet explore their surroundings as they engage in conversation, sip robust libations, and munch on well-curated bar snacks.
The Tea House
Situated under the popular dining spot Two Penny, the Tea House is a playful counterpart that features a moody and stylish bar with psychedelic wallpaper and just 50 seats situated under red lanterns and the famous “Teahouse” neon sign. Only here will you find a happy hour featuring Unicorn Juice (their take on house highballs) and Bottles of Sunshine (a.k.a. Miller High Life). Regularly scheduled programming includes late-night imbibing of cocktails that pack a punch and snacking on Asian-inspired bar munchies. On Wednesdays, things heat up with Wu & Wings. The brave-hearted can try their luck with the hottest wings in downtown Calgary (a waiver is required) and enjoy ’90s hip-hop all night long.
Yardarm is the new kid on the block, and it’s creating quite a stir. Here, in the trendy, up-and-coming East Village neighbourhood, you’ll find libations with names like Shot Through the Heart, Born to Be Wild, and Coffey & Cigarettes. All pair well with Beetroot & Whipped Goat Cheese Tart, Mushroom Tartare, or Bougie Oysters, exemplifying Yardarm’s mission of pushing the boundaries with their cocktail and food pairings. You’ll enjoy the industrial ambience, intimate space, and backdrop of live jazz piano on Friday and Saturday nights.
In Calgary’s core, nothing says New York more than this tiny lounge identifiable by its small pink-trimmed door sandwiched between its sister restaurant Blink and the many other watering holes on Stephen Avenue. Known for its sophisticated wine selection and imaginative list of Japanese whiskies, Bar Annabelle was recently named one of Canada’s 50 Best Bars in 2019, and for good reason. Boasting an impressive record collection, this space might be small, but it can accommodate more than you might think. With its narrow room, complete with industrial seating and eclectic elements, this micro bar was artfully designed by one of Calgary’s leading design firms, McKinley Burkart.
Not only is Confluence Distilling concealed in a Manchester industrial park, its old-time cocktail bar and tasting room presents a chill, ambiguous façade that can easily be overlooked from the street. Unlike other secret bars in the city, this one features Confluence’s own distilled spirits, such as the flagship Manchester Dry Gin. The bar is a warm and relaxed space that encourages guests to make the trek and stay a while—they can even watch the distilling process happening behind the bar and bear witness to the transformation of raw ingredients into the audacious cocktails that sit before them.
Frenchie Wine Bar
Head through Una Takeaway and just when you think you’ve gone too far, you’ll come across a large, fancy portrait of a French bulldog and a vintage desk. When you arrive in the back room, you’ll be greeted by a dimly lit space containing 20 seats that’s decorated with leather, exposed brick, and fixtures that are straight out of Prohibition-era France. There’s a curated list of wines that side with organic and biodynamic practices; these pair perfectly with the selection of charcuterie from Empire Provisions, house-made ricotta, and specialty cheeses from Peasant Cheese Shop.
Betty Lou’s Library
Get ready to step back into the Roaring Twenties: the cocktails are stiff, the music is loud, and the key to it all is held by the librarian. To enter, you must use the phone to receive a password that will unlock the velvet rope and get you to the other side of the bookcase. As with any true speakeasy, there’s a list of house rules outlining the correct way to conduct yourself in this space, including a dress code. Without giving away its je ne sais quoi, we’ll leave you with this: the live jazz and burlesque shows are not to be missed.
Nights and Weekends
Identifiable by its pink neon sign, this space is a specialty sandwich shop by day, and an exclusive pop-up wine bar and restaurant by night (and on weekends too, of course). Its decorated chefs turn out a rotating menu filled with creative infusions and time-honoured classics, such as devilled eggs, shrimp cocktails, and classic Alberta Wagyu ribeye steaks. The top-notch cuisine which only adds to the clandestine allure of this contemporary eatery. When the sign is lit, the bar is open.
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