You approach an inconspicuous door, with a look over your shoulder and a lick of parched lips you signal with a rap of your knuckles. The hatch slides open and a gruff voice says, “Password?” You respond, “The milk steak is good.” The hatch slides shut, and you wait with anticipation. The door opens and you make your way through the darkness until you reach a shabby looking door. You step through into the bustling, smoke-filled world of the speakeasy. The gin and moonshine flow freely, the jazz intoxicates the ears, and everyone is carefree and decadent. Any moment the lights might flash three times, signaling everyone to down their libations and hide the evidence – the police have arrived.
Oh, if only the experience of a speakeasy were still available. Or at least the real experience of one and not the faux speakeasies that are now trendy. I know, I know, the 1920s were not all glamour and beauty, criminals ruled, and speakeasies could be quite dangerous at times, but what a fun and exciting time it would have been. The music alone would have been enough to entice me. But then there are the clothes. The beads, the feathers, the fringe, oh my! And last, the hooch. What must the whiskey have tasted like then? The gin? (Which I will pass on, because that is the worst liquor.) Were they made in a bathtub in the back room? The drinks were probably not the most appealing to the palate, but still enough to get you up doing the Charleston.
There are plenty of movies depicting the era of the 1920s, recreating the secretive world of speakeasies or “gin joints.” A few are, Some Like It Hot (1959) – if you haven’t seen this movie, PLEASE watch it, it is hilarious and an all around great movie. Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) – another great movie featuring some incredible music, and performances by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. The Roaring Twenties (1939) – starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Need I say more?
And of course, one of my all-time favorite movies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). (Yeah, you read that right, got a problem with it? And yes, I still have my stuffed Roger Rabbit. Man, I was always so jealous of Jessica Rabbit!) Skip ahead to the 4:12 mark. These movies (and others) allow me to live in the speakeasy era for a few hours, getting to picture myself in the scenes and imagine this whirlwind world as my own.
Unfortunately, now we only have the speakeasy inspired bars that have been popping up in recent years. There are probably some actual good ones, but in San Diego, they are sorely lacking. However, no matter how good any modern day speakeasy may be, none of them can fully capture the authentic feel. The secrecy, the intrigue, the decadence, the
abandon. . .Of course, we would have to outlaw alcohol again to recapture all that.
When I found out there was a local speakeasy (two, in fact), I knew I had to give it a whirl. I solicited a friend to accompany me into this resurrected world, to one new-era speakeasy, Prohibition. First off, the name is horrible. Speakeasies had cool and mostly understated names, like The “21” Club, The Back Room, and The Cotton Club. I get the play on the name, but the authentic feel immediately disappears with the name. It instantly screams novelty. It is in downtown San Diego, sandwiched between two busy restaurants in the Gaslamp. Again, the location is lacking, nothing secretive here. It redeems itself a bit with its entrance, a plain door reading “Law Office: Eddie O’Hare, Esq.” It’s a nice touch. We then ring a buzzer and the hostess comes to the
door to check our names off a guest list. (I should note here, that apparently a few years ago when it first opened it actually did use a password, but no longer.) So again, it’s just like other clubs in downtown. I’m losing my excitement and anticipation.
When we step through the door, we slink our way down a set of stairs, where below it glows red (another nice touch, promising, the anticipation wells up again). When we finally arrive at the bottom, it’s surprising how small the place is, it is long and narrow. That isn’t all bad though, it definitely conjures up a secret feeling, as if we’re hidden away from the law and the passers-by above on the street. There is one booth (which apparently costs a chunk of money to reserve) and several tiny round tables with stools, one of which we quickly place ourselves at. The bar is in a back corner with more stools lining the wall opposite the bar. The bartenders are dapper in newsboys and suspenders (and goatees) this particular night. Another nice touch.
A three piece jazz band who is very good, but doesn’t play 1920s music, soon takes their place. If you’re going to sell yourself as a “speakeasy,” give us some rag-time or vintage jazz. You may think I’m being picky, but this bar does not stock vodka because it wasn’t around in the Prohibition era, because they’re trying to be sticklers about “authenticity.” They should stick to that mentality as much as possible, especially with the music!
This place also claims to have house rules and a dress code. I see neither being enforced. The dress code is a big one for me. I know there are plenty of bad dressers all over this country, but living in Southern California, everyone is pretty much always in their beach gear. (I love my flip flops too, but not for a night out!)
My friend and I opt for 1920s inspired attire, which the joint encourages. I, in my flapper-esque dress, complete with pin-curled faux-bob. My friend, in her pencil skirt and
pinstripe vest topped off with a fedora. There are a few others who are dressed up, but most people seem to have just walked in off the street. When clubs/lounges say they have an enforced dress code then completely ignore it, it is a HUGE turn off for me. (I understand they need to make money, so they end up letting anyone in, but seriously, don’t advertise and make a big deal of your “dress code” then.) It seems an especially heinous offense from a place like this, that is advertising itself as unique, classy, and “not your typical downtown club.” It is quickly losing points and my interest.
My friend heads to the bar to snatch up some libations. They’re expensive, but strong, sure to get us blotto. The place and our time there gets bonus points, because I catch a glimpse of the photo gracing the wall right next to our table: Clara Bow (one of my, for lack of better phrasing, icons. Rita Hayworth being the other). These photos of 1920s stars, male and female, hang from the walls all around the place. We sit back and enjoy the music, but not so much the people watching. Some of the patrons are enjoying the place for what it is, sipping their cocktails, and chatting with their friends. Then there is another group, who are easy to spot. The ones who read this place was “cool.” They heard it was a “hot spot.” Too much attitude and too much
“look how important I am, I’m listening to live jazz in a speakeasy.” We finish our drinks, discussing the escape plan. A group of “dance club” looking girls giving us the evil eye cements the plan: bathroom, then exit. As if it couldn’t be more disappointing, the bathroom doesn’t fit at all with the theme and (supposed) vibe of the place. It was like walking into a hotel restroom.
After the disappointment, even the disappointing bathroom, we climb those stairs glowing red, that seemed to coax us with so much promise in the beginning and make our way back to street level. Turns out we didn’t need the lights to flash three times and a police raid to drive us out of the speakeasy.
Conclusion: it was a huge disappointment. The overall feeling of the place was pretentious with a pinch of “we’re trying way too hard,” all while not even coming close to maintaining their original intent. Really great concept, horrible execution. However, this does not discourage me from wanting to test out the other local speakeasy, Noble Experiment. (Even though that name, too, makes me shudder.)
So with a heavy sigh, I will have to continue to live the speakeasy world through movies, and my own imagination, hoping for a contemporary “gin joint” that might be able to get it right. A place I can freely shake and twirl my fringes while doing the Charleston, Lindy Hop, or Jitterbug. A place where people come to enjoy themselves. A place that promotes a good time, not a “hip” atmosphere. A place that can give that classy, secretive aura and leap into the past without seeming contrived and forced, yet collapsing under its own so-called rules. Anyone up for starting a petition to outlaw alcohol?