How to Give Your Bar that “Speakeasy” Vibe

Secrets are exciting. Whether customers are getting a special bargain that few are privy to or just the sense of excitement that comes with finding a hidden gem on a remote corner of town, patrons like to think they’re members of a small, elite club.

Prohibition was a relatively short period of time that ended decades ago, and yet many Americans cling to the thrilling idea of the so-called “speakeasy.” It seems that creating the illusion that a bar is difficult to find or get into means that patrons are willing to fight their way in and pay a premium for cocktails with old fashioned names and ingredients.

So what exactly makes a bar a speakeasy in an age when alcohol is perfectly legal? Technically speaking, nothing. What creates a convincing impression that an establishment is this particular type of forbidden fruit? Well, the answer to that is a bit more complicated.

What’s in a Name?

For starters, simply ditching the sign out front and darkening the windows will give your bar an air of mystery. People will be curious to know what kind of place is inside. Have you gone out of business? People may wonder. If so, what’s replaced that once-beloved bar?

If you really want to create the kind of buzz that accompanies a speakeasy makeover, you can always change your name. One speakeasy in Cleveland wanted to be clear exactly what it was and simply named itself Speakeasy. Places like Chicago’s the Violet Hour and Kansas City’s Manifesto chose names that conjure up a feeling of restlessness and change. Other catchy names include Varnish (Los Angeles) and Bourbon & Branch (San Francisco).

Password, Please!

Once customers arrive, are they free to just mosey on in? If so, that might be too easy. If you want to be a speakeasy, you might want to consider having a password.

How will people know what the password is, you wonder? Methods may have varied in the past, but the modern-day answer is obvious: the internet. Maybe the password on your website, or maybe that’s too simple.

Do you have a Twitter account? If so, stir up some customers while you’re at it by also tweeting what the cocktail of the day is. Make people “like” you on Facebook, and you can put the password there as well. Keep patrons engaged by changing the password weekly or even daily.

The password notion is all in the spirit of fun, however, so no one’s saying you have to be strict about it. When a colleague and I were in San Francisco for a conference several years back and she brought me to Bourbon & Branch, we were stumped. So she just smiled sweetly and said, “Please?”

We were in! From there, we followed the posted rules, though, and kept our voices down so we wouldn’t get kicked out.

Make it “Authentic”

What about the décor? Well, I’ll let you in on another secret: real so-called speakeasies back in the day often weren’t bars or even rooms at all. Sometimes a speakeasy was just a table. The drinks didn’t necessarily kill you, though they might – but they often tasted terrible. People took whatever they could get.

Obviously no one wants that level of authenticity in a a so-called “speakeasy” today. They want the fantasy version instead: lacy cloth doilies, antique furniture, and tasty cocktails containing fresh fruit and garnishes, along with artisanal ingredients.

A final word about authenticity, the internet, and secrecy: You may be thinking, Nothing’s a secret in the age of Yelp; isn’t that sad? Well, the good news is that the lack of real discretion is the one thing that will make your speakeasy as authentic as can be. Over time, Prohibition just meant that speakeasy operators bribed the local police and went on with their business openly. This means you can spend your bribe money on doilies instead.

Josh Saunders