At nearly 10 p.m. Saturday night, almost two hours after putting my name on a list, I finally receive a call from a blocked number beckoning me down a deserted back alleyway I'd normally avoid at this late hour.
Such long waits and quasi-illicit maneuvers are standard procedure at Ranstead Room, Stephen Starr's eight-year-old speakeasy-inspired barroom that suggests a carefully manufactured walk on the wild side, with its dim lighting, flea-market erotic art on the walls (21 breasts total, by one observer's count) and a boudoir vibe underscored by red-and-black zebra-print carpet.
"We get a lot of people who come in and ask for some crazy thing that they read on the internet — and we will make it," said Mabel Davidson, general manager of the bar and its adjoining front, the taco and margarita joint El Rey. For instance, if you dare antagonize your bartender, consider ordering the Ramos Gin Fizz. As Davidson notes, "You legitimately have to shake it for 12 minutes." (Weeping softly while doing so is optional.) One night, I saw a tray of tall glasses filled with frothy white liquid, served up next to sidecars that looked suspiciously like whole egg yolks. That's just what they were, it turned out: the Electric Current Fizz, hangover and cure in a single cocktail.
I decide to stick with the new winter drink menu, devised by bartenders in collaboration with El Rey chef Dionicio Jimenez. It's full of ingredients that appear out of place on a drink list yet somehow make sense: masa, adding an earthy sweetness to a vodka-lime drink; arugula syrup, contributing a peppery bite and ectoplasm-green hue to a vodka-absinthe cocktail appropriately named Who You Gonna Call; ricotta in the Cheese Louise, made with Bulleit rye, quince syrup, and apple brandy. "It's like a boozy cheesecake," a man nearby says, correctly, after taking a sip.
All this can be consumed in peace because the house rules (no standing around waiting for seats, no incomplete parties admitted) effectively mean there is no scene. The crowd ranges from twentysomethings in small groups to a man in his 50s trying to impress a woman by expounding on gentrification and ordering the charcuterie for two with a French accent.
That doesn't mean, however, that you're not being critically observed — as I learned one night last year.
"Are you two on a first date?" a woman leaned over to ask a man at a nearby table the moment his date had vanished into the bathroom. She explained that she and her friends were playing a game: guessing how many first dates were unfolding in the bar at that moment. Then she glanced dismissively at me and a man I'd been seeing for several months at that time: "You guys? Definitely a first date."
So that didn't last. At least Ranstead Room endures.
2013 Chestnut St., (No phone, no website)
When to go: On a Saturday at 8 p.m., I faced an hour-and-45-minute wait. If you dine at El Rey and tell the host you'd like to visit Ranstead afterward, they'll take you back through the kitchen. Otherwise, enter on Ranstead Street — look for the red light — and arrive early to avoid waiting. It's open 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Bring: A date, if you must. Otherwise, craft-cocktail fans. Anyone whose idea of adventure is roaming down a dark alley two blocks from Rittenhouse Square.
What to order: Try the rich dessert-in-a-glass that is the Cheese Louise, or go for the refreshingly tart Halle Cranberry, made with gin, cranberry-tangerine shrub, and a sprig of rosemary, torched with a lighter to add a smoky, smudgy aroma that calls to mind certain West Philadelphia yoga studios (both are $13). There's also a menu of snacks, like merguez sliders, olives, and deviled eggs, plus anything on El Rey's Mexican menu.
Bathroom situation: Duck down a pitch-black hall, using your phone flashlight to identify your preferred gender on the door, and enter into a slightly grimy, single-stall pink- or blue-tiled room.