Vancouver’s Secret Speakeasy: Where is Laowai?

Dumplings sizzle and steam rises in the late afternoon air. The red brick takeaway in Chinatown is unassuming, small and empty, save for two cooks frying dumplings in hot oil. On the wall behind them, a tattered menu offers six options. Our group walks up and quietly orders Number 7.

We’re asked to wait on the patio, where we savour the last sips of the evening sun. I’m dressed up, of course; we look out of place as we perch next to a red vintage poster advertising Chinese cigarettes.

BLD TGER

Cleverly named BLD TGER (no eyes), this is the front for a hip new speakeasy in Vancouver. What is a speakeasy, you ask? During the Prohibition era, the sale of alcohol was deemed illegal. Secret establishments known as speakeasies (also called ‘blind pigs’ or, you guessed it, ‘blind tigers’) opened illicitly for rebellious patrons to consume liquor in hidden locations—if you knew where to find it.

Getting into this speakeasy is as simple as saying the password (mentioned above) and wearing proper attire. They aren’t too picky though—the men in our group wore sweaters and sneakers. (“Nice sneakers,” Tavis clarified.)

What I wore to the speakeasy

After waiting for 30 minutes or so, one of the guys behind the dumpling counter (who was, indeed, cooking real dumplings, available for take-out), ushered us towards the freezer door. He checked our vaccine passports and went over some rules. “It’s still the 1920s in there, so no phones,” he said. I tried not to gasp.

I know, I know. It’s wonderful that phone use was ruled out, and from the time the freezer door swung open and the music poured over us, no one touched their device. I didn’t see anyone in the room texting or ordering an Uber or checking Tinder. I loved the vibe, but of course I wanted to take pictures. Alas, I will have to make due with my memories.

The secret door, where my photos end

Bartenders in utility-style aprons with metal clasps and leather trim nodded us through the secret entranceway. We were led to our table, a cozy four-top with plush emerald chairs. Nearby, a beautiful green wall emitting an ethereal glow reminded me of an illusive amoeba. On the wall behind us, a flock of painted golden birds soared towards the exit; above us, illuminated birds hung suspended from the ceiling in a unique lighting fixture, their wings caught mid-flight.

We were each given a book (Volume 2) filled with extensive cocktail options. Each drink was featured on its own double-page spread with a list of ingredients, tasting notes, illustration and story about the historical figure who inspired it, related to Shanghai’s vibrant nightlife.

The poster outside

I ordered my first drink, which was heavy on black licorice and sported a thin, foamy film of egg whites. I ate tender, spiced bison dumplings and ordered a second drink named after a fierce feminist writer. I drank the sweet mixture containing banana liquor from a tall matte black coupe glass. Other drinks were extremely unique, and not all delighted my palette. One was as thick as a protein shake and tasted like eggnog. Another arrived with a medicine dropper and contained vinegary rice wine. My favourite was a smooth bourbon cocktail with a single ice cube. Between the four of us, we tried most of the menu.

Time slowed down. I liked not knowing the exact hour or seeing the outside world. On the street, you can’t hear any of the chatter and music swirling in the air inside. There’s no hint to what is happening behind the false freezer door.

Live music started at 8pm, but we left before then; returning to the other side of the 20s—the dreaded 2020s. I don’t think our current decade will inspire themed bars, but you never know.

If you go, arrive early and prepared to wait. Be aware there is a charge for the musical entertainment, and neither the drinks nor food was cheap (I believe our bill was close to $100).

Still—it was worth it for a secretive night in one of Vancouver’s most unique speakeasies.

Until next time!

Have you been to a speakeasy? Would you go to this one? Why/why not?

Comment below!

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