City’s modern speakeasies offer nostalgia, exclusivity

You coax your friends to put on a pair of nice pants and ride with you into the night. You ring the bell outside of an ornate, unmarked door on a busy street and wait. Others mill around on the sidewalk with you. They’re are all waiting, too. Eventually a man appears at the door and opens it cautiously. He looks you over, asks how many are in your party and quickly disappears again. You hand over your ID the next time you see him and murmur something about friends when he asks you how you found out about this place. It seems to be good enough. Once inside, you sit on benches and listen to the man go over a list of rules: no photos, no phone calls – this place is nothing like what you have heard. You feel your head nodding in agreement.

With your anticipation at its peak, you are finally led around the corner into a cavern of a room filled with chatting couples at low tables and waiters in white shirts milling about with their free hand tucked delicately behind their backs. Candlelight flickers over the wallpaper and exposed brick. The air is full of gin and promise.

You’ve made it into a speakeasy.

“Speakeasies were the center of a cultural movement in the 1920s,” Sarah Winski, an exhibition developer for the National Constitution Center’s “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” said. Winski said going out to these bars with friends from the opposite sex may seem like a completely normal thing to do now, but before the era of Prohibition and speakeasies it was unheard of.

“When drinking was pushed underground it brought everybody together,” Winski said. “We see this change in society completely fueled by the speakeasies.”

Now there seems to be a new movement emerging, with rumors flying of bars that don’t exactly hang a sign out front. Pair that with the buzz surrounding TV shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” the new blockbuster remake of the 1920s quintessential “Great Gatsby” and fashion’s recent nod to flapper glamour, and it seems as if people in the present day are obsessed with life a century ago.

“Fascination with the 1920s is something that has always been simmering in the American conscious,” Winski said. “Now there is just a resurgence.”

“It’s exclusive, but it’s kind of cool,” senior neuroscience major Mariza Esperanza said of her experience with speakeasies in Philadelphia. “If you wanted a bar that you can just walk into, you can go down the street. You get in [to the speakeasy], you feel special.”

Hopeful patrons to the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company, a 60-seat, speakeasy-inspired lounge, stood idly on the sidewalk until they could feel special too.

Phillip Pantuso and Kristin Knoll were just two of the crowd of people waiting their turn in the early evening hours. They were visiting from New York, and the Franklin came highly recommended to them.

“It’s a more focused drinking experience,” Pantuso said. “It’s quieter, private. They put a lot of care and attention into the presentation.”

These styles of bars pay so much attention to their cocktails, some might even call it a craft. John Miller, the general manager of the speakeasy-inspired Ranstead Room, stressed just how focused the bartenders are on crafting the drinks, which are served to perfection.

“Everything from the ice to the juice to the way we measure the liquor,” Miller said. “It’s about respecting all our ingredients to bring you the best possible finished product.”

The specialty cocktails served at so many of the speakeasy-style bars: gin, grapefruit and mint at a Chinatown hideaway; applejack, lemon and champagne from the Stephen Starr back-alley joint; or punch made with bourbon, pineapple and cinnamon at The Franklin, all seem ironic at bars that channel the vibe of Prohibition, an era some claim “ruined the cocktail” with poorly-made alcohol masked by various mixers.

Not all original speakeasies were like these modern, shiny tributes to an era gone by. Winski said the illegal bars in the 1920s could vary from dirty, basement bars to high-rolling, members-only clubs that only served the finest food and booked the best bands for their patrons.

“It wasn’t illegal to drink during Prohibition, just to sell it,” Winski reminded. “The speakeasies were trying to fill a need. It all depended on the clients.”

With ever-more-specific clientele, there are even more variations on the speakeasy of the 1920s today. Betty’s Speakeasy, an intimate café and BYO in South Philadelphia, puts everything right out in the open.

“It’s something that’s kind of a pun,” co-owner of Betty’s, Dylan Snow, said. “We can always ‘speak easy’ about the food we serve. Everything on the menu we know where it came from, how it’s made and quite a bit of history.”

Betty’s is like a traditional speakeasy, because it doesn’t advertise or keep regular hours. It specializes in hosting private dinners for small parties, providing the same exclusive feel as the candlelit bars around Center City.

“We’re big on the experience and toasting society standards,” Miller said of Ranstead. “You can come in with friends, raise cocktails together and enjoy your evening.”

Also waiting to enter the exclusive Franklin Mortgage were friends Juli Monette and Kim Harvey. They visit speakeasies in every town they go to, but they don’t hear about them by word-of-mouth.

“I did my research,” Monette said. “You just type in ‘speakeasy’ and start reading reviews.”

The information highway has certainly proved its usefulness, but it begs the question: can a bar be called a speakeasy if it is in the public eye?

“It’s hard, because it’s modern day and alcohol is legal. It’s not a secret,” Esperanza said. “I don’t know if there can be a real speakeasy with the Internet.”

It’s only when you look too closely that you realize the exposed bricks in the speakeasy look a little more like plastic, and that the wallpaper was cut so that it only seems like it is peeling away from the walls. You become suspicious that the books on the shelves are nothing but hollow bindings, and a terrible image of how cheap the bar would look if it was out in the sunlight enters your mind. This isn’t a real speakeasy.

You arrive to the point of outrage before you remember: It’s not about what’s real. It’s about the experience.

Rachel McDevitt can be reached at rachel.mcdevitt@temple.edu.

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