accessAtlanta

City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Knock, Knock: Speakeasy Drinking and Dining

Hello? Is Prohibition somewhere nearby? (photos by Becky Stein)

Hello? Is Prohibition somewhere nearby? (photos by Becky Stein)

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.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

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?”

Bottoms up

Bottoms up

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.

What's behind Door No. 1? Eleanors.

What's behind Door No. 1? Eleanors.

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.

Cocktails for your consideration

Cocktails for your consideration

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
————————
ELEANOR’S
1675 Cumberland Parkway, Smyrna, 770-434-1114
Food and drink: Full food and drink menu from Muss & Turner’s.
Credit cards: All major
Hours: 4 p.m. to about 12 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 4 p.m. to about 1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Children: Not a good idea. Eat in the front with kids.
Parking: Self
Wheelchair access: Full
Smoking: No
Noise level: Moderate

22 comments Add your comment

Baltisraul.....

November 15th, 2012
8:49 am

Both places look like fun and worth a visit!

Hipster

November 15th, 2012
9:21 am

Don’t forget The Fred at Taco Mac-Prado. Best thing they have going for them now that Deckard’s is gone.

Josh

November 15th, 2012
9:29 am

I heard that there are a few restaurants in town that serve really simple and delicious hamburgers. Maybe you could look into that for us, too?

Edward

November 15th, 2012
9:37 am

There is a cocktail lounge in Shanghai that I love that follows the “speakeasy” format, called People7. No signs on the outside, just an opening in the side of the building leading to some darkened steps. Ascend the steps to the wall with lighted openings in a checkerboard pattern. There are no doors or windows to be seen. Place your hands into the openings in the correct pattern and be surprised that the wall to your left slides open, revealing the entrance to the swanky lounge. It is large, airy (glass walls to the rear looking into a bamboo garden), fireplaces in different rooms, comfortable sofas and lounge chairs. Great drinks and tasty nibbles. They tell you the pattern when you call to make a reservation, it is also illustrated on the back of their business cards.

mldr465

November 15th, 2012
10:14 am

Prohibition rocks and so does Czar…Did you not try the sushi? It is great as it should be with Master Chef Saito

Mmmm....Foood

November 15th, 2012
10:33 am

Eleanors is a great spot! Perfect cozy & warm space for this time of year!! Love the freezer door entrance and unmarked exit!

Ian (temperedspirits.com)

November 15th, 2012
11:59 am

The “Speakeasy” concept, while fun, once or twice, kind of turns me off — I’d much rather find a comfy neighborhood bar that happens to make great cocktails, and not somewhere that’s exclusively gimmicky. That being said, Prohibition does indeed offer great drinks, made with care, in a very cool space — if you need somewhere to get classic cocktails, it’s a great spot. The heavy smoke is bothersome, though, leading me to choose H&F, Leon’s, or P&P over Prohibition.

I’ve not been to Eleanor’s, but it looks like cozy bar — I’ll have to plan a visit : )

Victor

November 15th, 2012
12:19 pm

besides these speakeasies (you forgot the edgewood one), there’s a brand new trend for 2013, something called a farm to table movement

A. Teesman

November 15th, 2012
1:01 pm

@ Josh, you might try Mighty Casey’s in Roswell for a great burger.

A. Teesman

November 15th, 2012
1:02 pm

Or Round the Corner if you are looking for something truly rad.

Native

November 15th, 2012
1:33 pm

@ A. Teesman, “Round the Corner”, now there’s a real blast from the distant past! But as for the speakeasies, somehow I fail to grasp that making your place of business all but invisible is a good thing.

MD

November 15th, 2012
2:06 pm

Just a heads up, but Prohibition was enforcing a dress code (tidy, no t-shirts or athletic wear) the last time I was there. If this is still the case, it’s probably worth mentioning.

Me

November 15th, 2012
2:48 pm

@MD — I’m not sure if such is enforced but someone wearing t-shirts, etc. might feel a bit out of place. We were at Prohibition on Tuesday night and had a great time at the bar. We had ample time to talk to and watch Bob Ruede. And, for those of you who don’t know, be advised that the phone number changed yesterday (Wed, 11/14)…
Have never been to Eleanor’s but will definitely have to give that a try!!

Edward

November 15th, 2012
2:57 pm

I love the concept. My first experience with something like a speakeasy was in Shanghai in 2010. A lounge called People7. Outside there is no signage, no windows on the street, just an opening in a concrete wall with some darkened stairs. At the top of the stairs is a wall with lighted holes arranged in a grid. Placing your hand into the holes in the correct pattern results in the left wall sliding open, revealing the lounge. Inside are various rooms, the main one bright and airy with glass walls looking out onto a serene bamboo garden. Other rooms have fireplaces, comfy sofas and chairs, low coffee tables. Drinks are great as are the food items (appetiser sizes). I revisited it this past summer and it is still great. They will tell you the pattern for the door when you call for a reservation.

Robert

November 15th, 2012
4:37 pm

This concept really doesn’t much interest me. The whole point of the secret entrances to the speakeasys during prohibition was because consuming alcohol was illegal. I think that was part of the “coolness” or thrill of going to one – you felt like you were getting away with something. You really were hiding out. These are just kind of video game era representations of the watering holes – play acting. At least that’s what they seem to me. That being said if I was walking in the area close to one of these I’d still probably stop in and see what the fuss is about.

missnadine

November 15th, 2012
11:36 pm

Some will think I am too paranoid, but I don’t think I would go to a place like the ones mentioned. Something about them not having any windows, but having hidden entrances and exits is just scary to me. I was once in a bar when there was a small fire – much scarier in this type of environment. Since people were drunk, it was just a real nightmare. yes, I know this can happen anywhere, but when given the choice, I don’t like really closed-in places.

Josh

November 16th, 2012
10:38 am

You’re right, Miss Nadine. If something went wrong it could be very bad…

Mr. Kissler, please give us more reports on speakeasies!

Jean

November 16th, 2012
2:09 pm

BLU Greek Taverna right off the Historic Marietta Square. http://www.blugreektaverna.com. AJC TOP 50 and 5 time Taste Of Marietta winner! 770-429-4096!

Edward

November 17th, 2012
10:35 am

Oh good lord, if you think these places are allowed to operate without proper fire exits, you should just stay home and cower in your beds. Leave the rest of the world for us to enjoy without your whimpering.

Robert

November 18th, 2012
9:40 am

I was thinking the same thing, Ed.

Chris

November 19th, 2012
3:04 pm

Vesuvius in O4W also has an adjoining speakeasy. I think it might actually be called “Speakeasy”. Just a room w/ a bar and a trick door, really.

berry steve

November 20th, 2012
12:05 pm

missnadine……you just need to stay home , you sort of creep me out! Don’t think you would do very well at ‘bike week’ in Daytona, Paama City or Sturgis!