In 1933, the Great Depression was at its peak. The first drive-in movie theater opened in New Jersey. Dust bowls swept across the Midwest. The original King Kong premiered in New York City. But one of the most notable moments of the year was the ratification of the twenty-first amendment on December 5—the end of Prohibition. For years across the country, speakeasies had sold alcohol illegally and inconspicuously to patrons, employing passwords and hidden doorways, many of these illicit bars tucked into basements and unassuming buildings.
Ninety years later, even though bar culture is alive and well, some Southern speakeasies nod to these traditions with passwords, secret entryways, and a few modern twists.
Greenville, South Carolina
In the historic West End of downtown Greenville lies a 1920s building once used as a bottling facility for Dr Pepper. Now, Vault & Vator includes the original motor and wood slat elevator from the bottling facility (the vault door was added later), and guests can even sit at a table in the elevator. Since 2017, Vault & Vator has been serving craft cocktails and small plates. One of their most popular drinks, the Dealer’s Choice, asks guests to select words from a list of a dozen or so adjectives, like fruity, sweet, or refreshing, to create a custom cocktail. Other drink options include the Three’s Company, with rye whiskey, amaro montenegro, and dark chocolate, and the “Dead Poet,” with strawberry campari, red wine, champagne, and soda.
Walking through a phone booth off Cherry Street in downtown Chattanooga grants access to Unknown Caller, a speakeasy open since 2018. Although the drink menu changes every week, constant favorites include slushie cocktails and “volcano bowls” (a large sharing cocktail served in a tiki bowl and set on fire). As for the ambiance, owner James Heeley says guests can expect to have fun while relaxing. Nineties hip hop blares while guests can play card games or blast hundreds of bubbles into the air with bubble guns. “It’s all about being comfortable and escaping the day-to-day when you come to the Unknown,” Heeley says. Aside from its collection of more than six hundred whiskeys, including rare Old Fitzgerald, Yamazaki, and Macallan bottles, popular cocktails include the Fortunato, with aged añejo tequila, mezcal, amontillado sherry, agave nectar, cardamom bitters, and lime oil.
A flag hanging inside Railbird Kitchen in Alexandria is the key to entering its sister speakeasy bar, Captain Gregory’s. With a tug of the flag, the wall slides open and guests enter. The candlelit, intimate bar rotates its menu every six weeks, but some year-round food favorites include brussels sprouts, shrimp tempura, and pork belly, which is braised for four hours, fried, tossed in a maple red wine reduction, and served over a quince-green olive puree. Popular cocktails include the Jaws of the Python, with Jamaican overproof rum, American rye, passion fruit, cinnamon, and burnt sugar, and the Rack Your Brain, made with Batavia Arrack, lightly aged rum, passion fruit, melted honey, lemon, and absinthe. This winter’s menu theme is “Winter in Tokyo,” and a popular drink is the Onoda Search Party, made with a sesame-oil-washed Japanese whiskey, ginger root liqueur, and sweet vermouth.
Nestled in the Muss & Turner’s restaurant just north of Atlanta is Eleanor’s, accessed by one of two freezer doors (one leads to the kitchen, but guests quickly realize which one leads to the bar). Dim lights reveal eight small tables. Opened in 2012, Eleanor’s is dedicated to Eleanor Seale, a New Yorker who applied to cook at Muss & Turner’s before the restaurant opened in 2012. Nearly two decades later, eighty-two-year-old Eleanor is still on the payroll and is deemed the “de facto mom” of the bar. The menu at Eleanor’s intentionally mirrors the menu of Muss & Turner’s, and one of the most popular drinks for winter months is the Brown Thrasher, made with Old Forester bourbon, smoked apple shrub, Averna amaro, and a hint of lemon.
A bouncer in the Hello Curio vintage shop on Whiskey Row guides guests to a secret entrance and staircase that leads to Hell or High Water on Washington Street. Brother-sister duo Maud and Stirling Welch opened the speakeasy in 2018, and the bar has been serving up cocktails, charcuterie, and desserts alongside Jazz Age piano music ever since. An antique call button at each table summons cocktail servers, and vintage lights illuminate secret rooms throughout the space. Music swirls out from original 1920s and 1930s speakers, and the bricks and wood in the walls and bar were reclaimed from the original Whiskey Row buildings. Cocktail favorites include the Mischief in Milan, with overproof rum and espresso-infused campari.
A not-so-serious idea for a poker room below a restaurant sparked the creation of what is now the Guest Room, located in the basement of Restaurant Tyler off East Main Street. A lantern-style light hangs in the alley behind the restaurant, leading guests to a small, wooden “window” (a nod to a traditional speakeasy door) and into the basement. Although creating a speakeasy wasn’t owner Ty Thames’s original idea, he says the location and ambiance helped him to embrace the concept. “The wood used throughout the space, the copper bar, and the dim lighting all lead to a warm comfort for our guests,” Thames says. “We were able to find a French Louis XVI–style mirror that covers our back wall and dates back to the late nineteenth century—the same time the building was constructed. We wanted to make the Guest Room feel like it has been there as long as the building has, in all of the good ways.” Popular drinks include the Mississippi 66, with Bristow gin, house-made pear shrub, and fresh lemon juice, and the Nightstalker, with Lunazul reposado tequila, Giffard rhubarb liqueur, and cinnamon syrup.
Near the historic Bienville Square in Mobile sits this speakeasy-style bar that was initially a wine shop before it evolved into a cocktail-slinging hot spot. While there are none of the typical speakeasy markers like passwords or a hidden entrance, the ambiance here certainly evokes secrecy. Exposed brick and wood complement the bar, made of hundred-year-old lumber from the building’s remodel. There’s an entire menu section devoted to old-fashioneds (the Haberdasher pours nearly twelve thousand of the classic cocktail each year), but general manager Roy Clark says the Winter Mule has gained “a cult-like following.” Made with vodka or gin, it’s served with lime, a house-made spiced cranberry sauce, and spicy ginger beer. A counter-service kitchen also whips up small bites like Parmesan fries and full-on meals such as peppercorn-crusted duck breast and cast iron–seared pork chop.