The speakeasy influence is seen at the Fells Point cocktail bar Rye. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Stepping inside the recently redesigned upstairs bar at the Elephant a few weeks ago, Tom Hunt felt transported to another era. The intimate space's low lighting, black felt pool table and suspenders-adorned staff behind the 32-foot white marble bar quickly wooed him and his party.
It made the Roland Park resident yearn for a time before chain sports bars, "where every place had its own specific character and style to it."
"The speakeasy feel, it's a throwback to a time before cell phones, and bars were a place to go and see, and be seen and meet people," Hunt said.
In a competitive nightlife scene like Baltimore's, bars new and old continue to find inspiration from the modern speakeasy aesthetic, from mood lighting and labor-intensive cocktails to thinly veiled marketing tactics and deliberately limited seating. While we're long past the need for true speakeasies — the illegal establishments that sold alcohol during the 1920s' Prohibition era — Baltimore bars and their patrons remain drawn to their seductive influence, from the original speakeasy, the Owl Bar, to the newly opened Elk Room in Harbor East.
It's a case of what's old is new again, especially to a younger bar crowd that wishes they could experience the past firsthand.
"A lot of the guests will mention that — 'This is a speakeasy vibe,' " said Perez Klebahn, managing partner at Rye in Fells Point. "It's a search for a lost time. A 25-year-old, 30-year-old, they didn't experience that, but it's something they romanticize."
Speakeasies earned their name in the 1920s because they were secret bars, and proponents spoke quietly of their existence. Downtown in Baltimore, that included the Owl Bar (originally called the Bar at the Belvedere), whose stained-glass window above the bar still reads, "The more he saw the less he spoke."
While the end of Prohibition in 1933 caused most speakeasies to dry up or shed their layer of secrecy, cocktailing giant Sasha Petraske ushered in a new era for the bar style in 2000, when he opened the influential Milk & Honey in Manhattan. With an unmarked door and a set of in-house rules, Milk & Honey became a cultural hit, and soon, speakeasy-style bars began opening around New York and Los Angeles, before trickling down to smaller cities like Baltimore, said Abbey Plonkey, director of brand experience design for the Denver-based firm OZ Architecture.
Plonkey, who has rebranded bars in the speakeasy vein in Denver and Nashville, Tenn., said the trend has grown as more consumers seek out unique experiences, whether they're traveling or spending a night out in their own city.
"From the food to the drinks that are served, the entire experience is a holistic one that people keep talking about," Plonkey said. "It's more so something that people want to take home with them and tell their friends about."
Since 2013, when the inconspicuous Remington bar WC Harlan became an unexpected hit, local imbibers have seemingly embraced the trend, and the speakeasy influence has become increasingly apparent throughout the city. These days, you can drink absinthe in the near dark at Hampden's new Bluebird Cocktail Room and sip a white Manhattan by a secret fireplace at LB Speakeasy inside the Lord Baltimore Hotel downtown.
At the Elk Room, which opened in Harbor East over the summer, the speakeasy influence can be felt everywhere.
On any given night, bartenders can be seen making complicated drinks as musicians perform jazz. The space isn't easily seen from the street, so the Elk Room's owners decided to embrace the disadvantage by creating a "bar that you need to seek out," said general manager David Goodman. Before opening, the bar's social media accounts posted cryptic updates with the hashtag #FindTheElk.
"Part of the fun is the search," Goodman said. "It's the word of mouth and finding the location, and feeling like, 'Hey, we're let into this little secret.' "
Given Rye's prominent location inside the former Leadbetter's space on Thames Street, being hidden simply isn't an option. That's OK with Klebahn, who prioritizes accessibility, and instead sees the speakeasy influence in Rye's theatricality. To watch the well-trained staff create cocktails is its own form of entertainment there.
"I'm not talking about flipping bottles and flair like that, but the sound of the ice in the shaker and running two shakers at the same time — these lend themselves to the escapism of what these bars are," Klebahn said.
That feeling of escape is at the heart of the Upstairs at the Elephant, according to owners Steven Rivelis and Mallory Staley.
While they initially created the space to offer a less expensive and more casual experience than the fine dining downstairs, they soon realized tapping into the speakeasy through layout and design could create the memorable atmosphere they were looking for. They added lounge furniture and games like backgammon and Chinese checkers, which patrons seem to enjoy, Rivelis said.
"I think we all are looking for opportunities to lift our heads away from our iPhone screens," Rivelis said. "Folks are developing relationships that only happen in that sort of intimate spot. That's been really fun to watch."
Naturally, cocktails were originally a main draw of speakeasies, and that hasn't changed today. The Prohibition era is widely associated with whiskey, and while these Baltimore bars have plenty of cocktails featuring the spirit, the new establishments are expanding the palette, too.
At Rye, patrons can try Thirteen Songs, made with local Old Line rum, the old French spirit rhum agricole, absinthe, coconut and lime. The Metamorphosis, served at Upstairs at the Elephant, is another rum-based drink, made with butterfly tea and limejuice. The eye-catching presentation typically impresses guests, Rivelis said.
"As you make the drink in front of somebody, it changes three different times in its color and appearance," he said.
While owners said most patrons enjoy these types of experiences, there are customers who don't fully embrace the speakeasy vibe. Usually, that means waiting longer than they wanted for drinks (slinging pints of light beer this is not), or disappointment with procedure, like the Elk Room's strict, self-imposed 50-person limit — the bar is one-in, one-out when full.
"At 12 o'clock at night, when everybody's had a couple of cocktails, it can be a little bit challenging to communicate to people why they're not allowed to come into the speakeasy," Goodman said. "But in the end, it has nothing to do with pretension or elitism. It's really the opposite. We want the people that are in here to feel special."
That specialized service is at the heart of the speakeasy trend, and the local owners agreed that if a customer leaves satisfied with a memorable story or two, they're more likely to come back and share their approval via word-of-mouth.
"I think folks are looking to not just go to a bar and banging back a couple of beers or shots," Rivelis said. "They're looking for something that's more of an experience."
The bar owners don't expect the speakeasy seeker to supplant the more casual bargoer around Baltimore in the near future, but they know there's a growing audience here for what they do.
"Ultimately, do I expect people to come here and drink 15 cocktails like they would at some other bars? Probably not, but that was never the point," Goodman said. "The point was to give them a singular experience that was a little bit different than everyone else in the city. People seem to be attracted to that."