Speak Low is notoriously hard to find – but absolutely worth the effort. Its nondescript setting – equidistant between Fuxing Park and the InterContinental Shanghai Ruijin, a little to the west of the Bund and the Huangpu River – helps it fly under the radar.
And this, in fact, is no bad thing. Modern Shanghai is jam-packed with effervescently fabulous places, from the overblown-and-ridiculous to cutting-edge cool. The last time the Pearl of the East was this fashionable, Noël Coward was a regular visitor, hanging out with Charlie Chaplin and Victor Sassoon at the Peace Hotel and writing Private Lives.
There’s an element of this old-world Shanghai in Speak Low, which is a place of whispered conversations, of dipped eyes, strong spirits and hidden glances. It’s this way from the moment we walked into what appeared to be a cocktail shop and boldly announced that we had come for a drink. The lady inside replied, cryptically: “If you can find your way into the bar, you are welcome to come in.”
Find it we did – a hidden lever on a bookshelf that slid magically to one side, revealing a long narrow corridor that led, first to a small downstairs bar where smokers can still have the luxury of lighting up, and, beyond, a heavy velvet curtain, and a of flight of stairs heading up to a bijou speakeasy-style bar with a serious cocktail list.
Once inside, we found a busy, thriving humming bar, cocktail wizards working their magic, creating drinks that qualified as works of art. Chris, our bartender, was a fount of friendliness and knowledge. Having told him what spirits we liked, he recommended the belly-filling ‘Fog Cutter’ - Bacardi Carta Blanca with gin, cognac, cream sherry, Crème de Cassis and Orgeat Citrus, topped with heavy cream – and the ‘Serenity’, which blends Lychee Cello, red grapefruit, lemon and rose water in a Martini glass. They were some of the best drinks this globe-trotting reviewer has had the pleasure of sampling.
It was a Monday night, but the place was buzzing with customers ordering fabulous tapas dishes either at the long, central L-shaped bar, or at one of four cosy tables at the end of the room.
Now, speakeasy has been done to death in many cities, Shanghai included. So why does this one stand out from pack? Well, for three reasons.
The first is the owner, Shingo Gokan, who opened Speak Low in 2014 as a four-floor concept bar. His vision was exclusivity and excellence, and offering the punter a soupçon of everything. Thus, the place offers a range of delicious light and heavy bites. The second floor is laid back and popular place on a weekend, while one storey up, you need to have a reservation – or be in the know – to gain entrance, as its 25 coveted seated-only places are hard to come by. Up high on the fourth floor is the VIP section – which I’m hoping to finagle my way into on my next trip! This instant hit has put many a Shanghai bar in the shade but that shouldn’t come as a surprise when you find the man behind it is Tokyo-born cocktail progenitor of Angel’s Share in New York; a Japanese speakeasy that discerning cocktail aficionados have been flocking to since it opened its door in the East Village in the mid-1990s.
The second reason that Speak Low is a cut above its peers is due to Fay Chen, one of the few female head bartenders in Shanghai. Her cocktail creation Gold Fashioned won her the Bacardi Legacy competition in 2015 (she finished in the top eight worldwide), is one of Speak Low’s best-selling cocktails, and comes with my personal and hearty recommendation. It’s here, too, that you get a true sense of the cocktail maker’s true art.
It was Monday and we were due back at our desks early the next morning, so we, rather grudgingly, headed for the door. A few days later I got an email from Shingo. A friend who'd recommended Speak Low to me had been in touch with the owner, who’d been elsewhere on business when we visited. He told me to come back the following week, promising the staff would take good care of us.
Well, how could I refuse? So it was that a few days later, we found ourselves sailing through Speak Low like regulars, making our way upstairs and announcing ourselves casually to the girl guarding the stairs. We were waved through, only to be confronted with another puzzle before entrance would be granted. We found it - not instantly I admit, and it’s not something I'll share to save you the surprise - but the doors slid open, revealing a bar that was the width of the small room, seating around ten people, together with a small space housing four or five smaller tables.
While both floors share the same tapas-style menu, the cocktails differ. Some drinks arriving trailing a steamy vapour of cigar smoke, or come alive in a passionate fruit shell with little sparks that lit up the drink. Others are accompanied by a pestle and mortar, to help you ascertain the right spice level for your chosen tipple. Imagination, creativity and an ability to mix flavours is present in every drink; each has an element of theatre to it, with the added bonus they all taste sublime.
Speak Low has been named the second-best bar in Asia, my only surprise was that it hadn't won the top spot.
This hidden gem of a speakeasy should on everyone's wish list. Go, drink, eat, luxuriate, enjoy the amazing service and the feeling of exclusivity. And become a climber. Start on the ground floor and slowly make your way up – if you get really lucky - to the fourth. A perfect night out at a very modern recreation of old Shanghai.