I'm standing outside the supposedly most discreet bar in Philadelphia – the windowless Hop Sing Laundromat, where Instagramming your drinks will get you banned for life – and Lê, the owner, is spilling my baggage to my editor and another journalist I've only just met.
"The first time she came here was on a date," he announces. My editor wants to know: Was it a good one? Lê declares that it was not.
So it goes at Hop Sing, the speakeasy that helped bring the craft-cocktail movement to the next level in Philadelphia, and that is as well-known for its rigorous screening (though the infamous sneaker ban was recently lifted) as for what are widely acknowledged to be some of the best drinks anywhere. I had stopped by for the fifth-anniversary party, to drink a glass of something called Fuggedaboutit, an alchemical combination of gin, Campari, St. Germain, and Velvet Falernum, and to catch Lê's 6:30 p.m. show. He did not disappoint.
The first time I went (on, yes, an ultimately unsuccessful date), I had the layman's experience of Hop Sing: Ring the bell – is this the right place? – wait quietly, submit my photo ID to a stern doorman, and watch it disappear behind a locked door. After a few minutes, the man returned to admit us into an antechamber, seat us on a bench, and extract our agreement to rules that were, he said, designed to protect our peace and privacy: namely, no photography or phone calls. Then he led us to a table with a white tablecloth, flickering, votive and lengthy, detailed cocktail menus – the affectations of fine dining, applied to drinks.
Privacy has its limits, though: Lê has a record of every person who enters (and the hundred or so people denied entry on any given week). It's a lopsided arrangement, since Lê goes, Cher-like, by a single name, and keeps his own biography a well-concealed mystery. What I do know is he is from Vietnam, is a natty dresser and the owner of more than 300 pairs of cuff links, and when I stop by for a drink, he follows up with a Facebook message, his mantra, "No hate mails please!"
But what is there to hate?
Not his anniversary party, where the guests are allowed to break another house rule: to walk around, mingle, and admire the Santory Whisky Toki ice sculpture and the elaborate cake, shaped like a knockoff Nike sneaker, bearing another of his slogans, "They hate us on Yelp."
Not the dimly lit space, with its ornate chandeliers, atmospherically battered crimson walls, and shimmering nickel-tiled bar.
Definitely not the drinks (even though, tonight, they take awhile. "Everyone showed up right at 6:30," Lê gripes by way of apology. "They're afraid if they don't, I'll ban them.") They're worth waiting for, though: A perfect Manhattan, served with a sidecar of more Manhattan; the Saigon Flip, made with aged rum, Licor 43, condensed milk, lime juice, and raw egg, shaken into a delicate froth and served with a bottle of club soda on the side, to add to taste; and that crisp, refreshing Fuggedaboutit, just the right balance of tart, bitter, and sweet.
Lê, who enjoys my column for the sole reason that I get even more hate mails than he does, may well ban me anyway. That can't be helped. No hate mails, please.
Hop Sing Laundromat
1029 Race St., (no phone)
When to go: To be safe, it's best to go on a weeknight, or before 9 p.m. on a weekend. It's open 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Bring: People who know how to behave themselves. Your secret love interest, and anyone else you don't want to be photographed with. Cash.
What to order: There are 70-plus drinks on the menu (priced from $12 to $16), so that's a personal choice. For something light, consider the Fuggedaboutit. In lieu of dessert, consider the Mother's Little Helper, with coconut rum, amaretto, Vietnamese coffee, and cream. For nondrinkers, mocktails ($8) are made from fruit juice squeezed fresh to order, "unlike other inferior and false advertising imperialist bars."
Bathroom situation: Single rooms that are clean and well-lit.