That was our first thought upon hearing of Hell Phone. But before we sharpened our pitchforks, it seemed worth paying a benefit-of-the-doubt-visit to the recently opened extension of the Ange Noir Café in Bushwick. Admittedly, they also had us at their offer of crepes.
The first thing to catch our eye was a chalkboard outside Ange Noir encouraging its customers to “go through the phone booth” inside. While in its modern conception the speakeasy has lost its critical need to be inconspicuous, this seemed gratuitous. But, as co-owner Anguy Pacini explained it, before you can have anonymity, you need customers.
“After a while we won’t tell people about the bar and they’ll use this phone as an intercom,” said Pacini in his thick French accent, gesturing towards an old phone a la Please Don’t Tell. Fortunately, the comparisons between the two establishments ended there, as Pacini went on to address the elephant in the booth, explaining the origin of his hulking red London telephone box.
Three years ago, Pacini moved to New York from France with his wife and co-owner Vanessa. A short while later they purchased the former Café Orwell, turning it into their predominantly French restaurant and coffee shop, Ange Noir. It turns out that long before the concept of a speakeasy, Pacini had originally built the phone booth as a solution to an awkward spatial situation.
“When we had an event and [a] musician would play, the customer [would have to] pass across the stage and open a door to go into the toilet — in view of the whole cafe,” recalled a chuckling Pacini, who decided to address the issue by creating a buffer between audience and bathroom. Rather than simply build a wall, though, the ever resourceful Pacini opted for a wooden phone booth – a habit he’d eventually struggle to break.
“I dunno, he just really likes making phone booths,” said Danielle O’ Flynn, manager of Ange Noir and Hell Phone, standing inside the new room. The once run-down, unoccupied space now shares a matching phone booth entrance placed back-to-back with the original. In another far corner of the bar sits a sideways-phone-booth couch and beside it, a phone-booth glass cabinet.
Other fun details of Pacini’s craftsmanship include a vintage-looking bar crafted “all in one night” from wood found strewn on the streets of Bushwick, an old grand piano repurposed into a table, and a painted Union Jack table further challenging the cultural stereotype that the French hate all things British. Beside the collection of handy-made furniture the bar is also littered with skulls, another mild Pacini obsession.
Perhaps the greatest difference that separates “Hell Phone” from its Manhattan semi-doppelganger is a stage that extends through both the café and bar. “We have the option to have [the stage] open to both rooms, or close it off privately for either side,” said O’ Flynn, noting an upcoming burlesque show in which the entire space will be used.
Like the chalkboard outside, this may seem to contradict the novelty of their speakeasy’s secrecy, but it talks more to the open, friendly atmosphere the Pacinis are far more interested in creating.
“The bar encourages customers to help name new cocktails,” said O’ Flynn, who recently helped create a drink inspired by Pacini’s love for Chevrolet called the “Hell Camino” — a “spicy mix of mescal and tomato.”
As to the name “Hell Phone,” while Pacini admits there’s no specific backstory, in the spirit of solicitor-ship he’s come up with a good one. “Ange Noir means black angel in French,” said Pacini, taking us back into the café and pausing on his way beside the phone. “So, when the angel falls from the sky, she must phone the devil to say, ‘Take me, please.’”