'Speak-easies' are the hot new bar trend
With the resurgence in classic-cocktail culture comes another vestige of days gone by: the "speak-easy" bar, one that's open to those in the know. These days they're hip, and legal.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Thanks to the resurgence of classic cocktails, we now have a new species of cocktail den lurking in the hippest neighborhoods.
But good luck finding them.
A GPS might help.
They sit in the oddest — some would say undesirable — locations. One sits in a nondescript building on Capitol Hill that looks vacant. Another is tucked in an alley in Belltown. (Your taxi driver might be stumped by this location).
In Seattle, where some folks seem to embrace all things classic cocktail, now comes the hideaway bars that replicate the hush-hush aura of the Prohibition-era speak-easies.
Already hot in San Francisco, Chicago and especially in New York City, where this trend started, these legal "speak-easies" are the new "it" thing in Seattle's nightlife.
The hotly anticipated Tavern Law — mentioned in The New York Times and on cocktail-geek blogs — debuted in late August on Capitol Hill, opened by the owners of the nationally acclaimed Spur Gastropub in Belltown.
At Tavern Law, a vault door leads to a den adorned with Prohibition-era motifs: a flask believed to be owned by Houdini, vintage glassware and custom furniture recalling designs from the 1930s. Above, antique chandeliers. Below, a floor constructed from reclaimed barn wood in Montana.
"We wanted to celebrate the classic cocktail and the art of bartending," said Brian McCracken, who co-owns Tavern Law with chef Dana Tough. Instead of a cocktail menu, the speak-easy bartenders craft drinks based on the customers' flavor profiles (a cocktail with smokey notes, for instance).
The true speak-easies — illegal ones — have always lurked around Seattle, as recently as in the last two decades, in the Chinatown International District and even one near the Seattle Police substation in Capitol Hill. Sometimes, they drew shady characters. Often, their cocktail offerings were limited.
The new wave pays homage to the pre- and Prohibition-era cocktails, with bartenders donning vests and fedoras, serving the Martinez, the precursor to the martini, and the old fashioned, the rye libation of choice for the suave Don Draper on the hit show "Mad Men."
Customers also like to dress the part. Dec. 5 is considered Seattle's biggest cocktail party, when cocktail geeks every year don Bonnie and Clyde get-ups to celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933.
Those costume parties are more frequent with the faux speak-easies.
Recently, Tavern Law was rented out for a private party at which folks dressed in gangster suits and flapper dresses arrived in a stretched Rolls-Royce.
In an e-mail, cocktail historian Robert Hess of Lake Forest Park explained: "The Speakeasy concept itself is one that is gaining in popularity quite a bit, with bars jumping on that bandwagon in almost every city with even a mild cocktail focus. In general, it is a fun and entertaining idea. Everybody likes a mystery, and it is enticing to have a 'secret handshake' necessary to get into the 'club.' "
Where to find them?
At Maxwell's, a fine dining restaurant in Tacoma's historic Walker Building, a server punches a code into a keypad to open the mahogany panel that is actually a door hiding a bar. (Cocktails are more contemporary rather than classic.) 454 St. Helen's Ave., Tacoma (253-683-4115 or www.maxwells-tacoma.com).
In Belltown, Bathtub Gin & Co. hides in the alley between First and Second avenues off Blanchard Street. Opened in late July, the remodeled apartment basement with stamped tin ceiling was once a boiler room. (Modest classic cocktail menu.) 2303 Second Ave., Seattle.
At Knee High Stocking Co., a doorman pulls back the velvet drapes to lead you through a dark, modest room illuminated by two antique chandeliers. 1356 E. Olive Way, Seattle (206-979-7049 or www.kneehighstocking.com).
Tavern Law (1406 12th Ave., Seattle, 206-322-9734, www.tavernlaw.com) is different in that it sits visibly on the hip 12th Avenue strip of restaurants. Its speak-easy is upstairs. The staff won't say, but to get there, you pick up the rotary telephone by the vault to get buzzed in. Many first timers are probably kicking themselves now for thinking that vault was just a prop.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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