US speakeasies back in vogue -- in echo of Prohibition era

4 min

Washington (AFP)

A century after the United States clamped down on alcohol and ushered in the Prohibition era, speakeasies are once again popping up behind hidden doors and luring in revelers seeking fancy cocktails with an illicit 1920s vibe.

Just a few blocks from the White House in downtown Washington, a steady stream of lawyers, diplomats and lobbyists hurry along the sidewalk of K Street, oblivious to the fact that as their offices close for the night, a basement bar invisible from the street is starting to fill up.

Drinkers enter The Mirror at the bottom of some steps that look at first glance like they lead to an empty store. The place smells vaguely of urine and the walls are bare but for some graffiti and a "For Rent" sign. An imposing mirror in this strange space reveals itself to be a door to a hidden bar.

In creating this hard-to-find entrance, The Mirror's two owners wanted to "pay tribute to these great cocktail bars of the past."

The original speakeasies sprang up after Congress passed the 18th Amendment, which in 1920 banned the production, sale and transport of alcohol, and stayed in business until the law's repeal in 1933.

Known only to those with contacts on the inside, the illicit drinking holes were set up in basements or concealed rooms and got their name from their clients' need to speak softly to avoid betraying their presence to the police or suspicious neighbors.

- Roaring Twenties -

In the early 2000s, a few bars in New York revived the tradition of passwords or codes to get through the door, but the trend of the new speakeasies has only really taken off in the past decade.

Aside from a penchant for hard-to-find doorways, they share a taste for decor inspired by the Roaring Twenties as well as a broad range of cocktails, the favored beverage of Americans in the wild years of the Jazz Age.

"We wanted to do a little bit of a different spin," The Mirror co-owner Jeff Coles told AFP in the half-light of his bar, noting the contemporary music that was playing rather than the 1920s soundtrack of many such establishments.

"A lot of people are looking for sort of an intimate atmosphere," he said. "As long as you go in the shadows, no one really knows you're there."

"We're very big with daters," he said.

Sitting on his own, Monty Hobbs is a regular who has brought a number of his dates to the subterranean bar. They often text him from outside, confused about how to get in, but he believes the darkness favors his look.

"I'm a pale guy with red hair and red beard, so bright lights do not bring out my best features," said the 44-year-old digital marketing manager.

- Word of mouth -

The lighting is less subdued at Capo, another speakeasy in the US capital, although the bar's entrance is even more cunningly disguised.

Most passers-by simply take the place to be a straight-up Italian delicatessen, unaware that behind the door of what looks like a cold storage room is in fact a concealed bar.

"We've had people come to this deli for a month, if not a year, and have no idea that we're back here," said manager Rohit Malhotra.

When the door opens, confusion often breaks out among the deli's customers. "They start pointing out and say, 'I think I saw a bar,' 'No, no you're crazy,' 'No, the guy walked into the freezer...' That's a fun moment."

Like most of its counterparts, Capo's reputation has largely spread by word of mouth, although its fame has been burnished by Instagrammers fascinated with its trick shopfront.

"You have to cater for the millennials," said Patrick Zarifeh, Capo's general manager, who said his clientele came not just for a drink but for an "experience."

These 21st century speakeasies are sometimes accused of being elitist and lacking authenticity -- not a charge that could be levelled at the The Mirror's former owner, whose establishment, then called "The Speak," was twice shut down for want of an adequate liquor license.