When I drive home at night, I always end up rolling slowly past a stretch of eating and drinking establishments with windows facing the street. Thus begins the Goldilocks math: The Italian restaurant looks too crowded and noisy, the French place looks too dead. The pub looks just right: lively but not packed. If we were to dine out, we’d surely go for the latter choice.
But what if you couldn’t see through any windows? What if there were no inviting patio, no well-lit front door, not even a sign?
A few places around Atlanta take just this approach. They hide in plain sight.
You might think of these spots as modern-day speakeasies — an association and loving homage that the Buckhead bar, Prohibition, makes explicit.
Prohibition sits off to the corner in the Andrews Entertainment District — a kind of sprawling mini-mall that has become a locus of dining and nightlife, all run by the same management company. You pull up to the valet and join the milling crowds — groups of women teetering tipsily in heels, young couples on first dates, middle-aged couple on date night. Some peel off to the Improv comedy club, others to the wine bar Cellar 56. A few (but not many) make their way upstairs to Czar Ice Bar, which features a vaguely Russia-in-winter design that looks inspired by a production of “The Nutcracker,” a squat sushi bar and a long drinks bar with a surface of sheer, opaque ice.
You, however, are looking for Prohibition, which is nowhere to be seen. Look closely, comrades. A red British phone box hugs a wall somewhere on the first floor. You know what to do: Wander up to a barkeep in one of other joints, lean in conspiratorially and say, “Hey, buddy, can you get me into Prohibition?”
You should be able to score a slip of paper with a phone number on it, and you know what to do. Step into that phone booth with the rotary dial, call the number and wait for the “Get Smart”-style trap door to open. (Relax, it’s not in the floor.)
Inside Prohibition is nothing like the bookie’s lair in “The Sting” nor the brothel in “Mad Men.” But I won’t divulge any spoilers other than to say windowless rooms are always a surprise. If it’s a slow night, you might find yourself hanging out with bartender Bob Ruede, who wears a tool belt with ice chippers and the like. Order a bourbon on the rocks and he will start madly chipping away a brick of ice and then slip it into his handy-dandy Taisin ice mold — a kind of heated brass contraption that turns rough diamonds of H2O into shiny spheres.
Go on a weekend, and the place is packed and thick with smoke. There’s a full food menu, but hardly anyone takes advantage of it. Now’s the time to contemplate the inch-thick tome that’s the cocktail menu — all curvy fonts and flowery language, with old-fashioned line drawings of tipsy swells. There’s something called a “Japanese cocktail” and another something called “The Lady Violet.” It all seems very period, like non-tropical Trader Vic’s.
You can’t help but smile, and then smile again more broadly when the drinks come, because they’re really good. A “Modified Whiskey Sour” ($12) frothed with egg white and dotted with bitters like a Pisco sour is sweet and compellingly weird, and velvet on the tongue. It tastes like something you would have thought grownups drank when you were 5. This speakeasy fires your imagination.
Across town, another room hides.
Go to Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, and you will see this casual deli-restaurant as it has long been. That long refrigerated case where you order sandwiches at lunch, the back dining room, the ample patio that’s such an oasis that people often fill it on chilly fall nights.
But you want a drink? You want to sit at the bar? “Follow me,” says the hostess, as she leads you through the dining room, past the restrooms, to a large, heavy door.
Behind it lies Eleanor’s — a pleasantly dark, wood-paneled space with a long counter and more than a few tables.
“Cool!” you will say, or perhaps just think, as you take in the scene. The people here chatter and laugh like they’re at a bar. It’s like a light switch turned off, and the focus shifts from food to drink, even though Eleanor’s serves the same menu as that in the restaurant.
Eleanor Seale herself — the manager for whom the bar is named — will likely stop by to chat you up, perhaps even turn you into a regular.
There’s a short cocktail list, but I don’t really love the one I try. It’s called Beantown Bruiser ($9), and it combines rye whiskey with ginger ale, apple brandy and some other stuff into sweetness.
I’m going to venture to say that this speakeasy bar isn’t really about the cocktails. The guys behind the bar here are perfectly nice, but they’re not freaks. They’re not the shaker-shaking, tincture-concocting, armband-wearing folk who see magic in this newly rediscovered culture of mixology.
In fact, I was much happier at Eleanor’s when I gave up on the thought of a cocktail and settled into an excellent brown ale on tap and got a burger for it to wash down. I love that Muss & Turner’s burger ($10.93), grilled on a Big Green Egg out front, with roasted poblano pepper, cheddar and cilantro aïoli.
After Eleanor’s, I began to think about all the other rooms hidden about town. I love getting lunch at the Norcross Japanese restaurant Sushi Yoko, precisely because it is so hidden — down a sketchy hallway in a back room that has never seen sunshine. The hidden bar, the El, behind El Azteca Mexican restaurant in Poncey-Highland offers a rite of Atlanta passage on a late evening, much like its famous neighbor, the Clermont Lounge.
Aria offers a hidden basement wine room for private parties, and I’ve heard such a place exists at the Brick Store Pub in Decatur, though I’ve never seen it.
When there are no windows into a space where you’re going to spend a couple of hours eating or drinking, you can’t make any prejudgements. I love that. When the evening begins with a surprise, it can’t go wrong.PROHIBITION 56 East Andrews Drive, Buckhead. I could tell you the phone number, but then I get your drink. Food and drink: Great cocktails and spirits, limited wine and beer. Full menu, heavy on the small plates. Credit cards: All major Hours: 4 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Children: No Parking: Valet Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: Yes, and lots of smoke. Noise level: Moderate ————————