The word evokes a sense of mystery, curiosity, and excitement, even today – a full eight decades after the curtains dropped on the farce that was Prohibition. Not that our enduring fascination with the notion of an illicit bar should be surprising; we are nothing if not drawn to the forbidden. And despite all you could do in 1920s America – especially new things, like buy a car, listen to jazz on the radio, go to work in a skyscraper – the decade is probably best remembered for what you could NOT do: legally purchase an intoxicating beverage.
But the operative word there is “legally,” and as we all know, booze didn’t simply vanish upon passage of the amendment that banned it. It just went underground, melted into the shadows.
And plenty of people followed.
They heard through the grapevine that they could buy a drink in the storage room of a restaurant, in a members-only club, in the attic above what was once a bar, or in the basement of a private residence owned by an entrepreneurial, small-time criminal. They snuck into side doors in dark alleys, navigated dusty, cluttered hallways, dodged leaky pipes, and climbed rickety staircases. They rang a bell or knocked three times, whispered a password to a set of suspicious eyes through the sliding peephole of a locked door, and finally, were ushered into a room where they could join other former law-abiding citizens who had resorted to such complicated measures for the simple pleasure of enjoying a drink. It may have been in a luxurious space not far removed from the dignified drinking establishments that once proliferated, or a sparse room designated a “bar” by the mere presence of a table, a couple of chairs, and bottle of homemade hooch. Wherever it was, and whatever it looked like, no one talked very loudly or openly about it. And thus it came to be known as a speakeasy.
That the concept still captures our imagination is evidenced by the popularity of the speakeasy-style bars that have popped up all over the country in recent years. In New York, Milk & Honey only accepts customers by referral, and PDT (Please Don’t Tell) requires patrons to enter a phone booth in a hot dog joint and identify themselves before being allowed inside. Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco requires reservations and posts a code of conduct that urges discretion. More locally, Davis Square’s Saloon doesn’t go to such lengths; but its hard-to-find entrance and subterranean, windowless space engender an environment well suited to sipping highly refined, old-style cocktails.
Like a lot of people, I love the idea of playing along, jumping through a few hoops, and imagining the days when ordering a drink was risky business. So I hope it doesn’t sound like a refusal to suspend my disbelief by pointing out that most of these bars conflate the trappings of 1920s-era “hidden” bars with the glamour of their legal predecessors. For starters, the drinks are good – like, really good. Saloon’s cocktails, for example, are impeccably crafted and often very traditional, made with the simple ingredients that characterized early 20th century libations. During Prohibition, by contrast, most people were drinking gut rot. New drink recipes incorporated multiple and heavy mixers to mask the terrible flavor of bootleg liquor that may well have been made in someone’s bathtub.
Eschewing cocktails made with adulterated and, not infrequently, poisonous booze is one sacrifice to authenticity that I think we’re all happy to make. But beyond that, a lot of these modern “speakeasies” are gorgeous. Like something you’d find in a really fancy, old-world hotel, with mahogany walls, ornate bars, burgundy carpets, and servers nattily attired in vests and ties.
Without doubt, there were speakeasies in the 1920s that maintained such an upscale appearance; some even required gentlemen to wear suits and ties. But most of them were considerably more modest. And that’s what gives Still, in Portsmouth, Virginia, a certain gritty authenticity that many of its Prohibition-themed peers lack.
I was in Virginia over the holidays, visiting Melissa’s family, and certainly wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to get another out-of-state post under my belt. Still came highly recommended (a certain reader out there might even own up to having badgered me to go), and with good reason. As we pulled onto a side street, I saw a sign for the bar atop of what appeared to be a side entrance. I walked around to the front of the building to look for the main entrance, only to discover that the side door was the only way in.
Well played, Still.
The door itself is nondescript, and with its small, barred window, looks entirely uninviting. All that was missing was a burly guy on the other side peeking through and demanding a password.
Beyond the door is everything you might expect to see in your typical 1920s speakeasy. Instead of plush furniture and old-world decadence, Still feels like a basement hastily converted into a makeshift bar, tidied up and made presentable enough for paying customers who were more interested in discretion than comfort. Luxury here only goes so far as a couple of easy chairs that look like they could have been commandeered from the average person’s living room. Forget hardwood floors and burgundy drapes; Still sports a concrete floor, low ceilings, and exposed support posts. Old-time jazz sets the mood, drywall and brick add to the effect, and shutters on the windows seem designed to repel prying eyes.
A legal bar fashioned after an illegal one takes on an added layer of irony in Virginia, a state that once seemed all too eager to go dry. Virginia enacted its own liquor prohibition in 1916, and the experiment worked about as well as it did for the rest of the country four years later – which is to say, very poorly. The law was extremely unpopular, difficult to enforce, and easy to circumvent. Throughout the 1920s, Virginia saw the same Prohibition-related issues as the rest of the country – home distilleries churning out toxic liquor, speakeasies, corrupt law enforcement officials, shootouts between bootleggers and police. Complicating matters further was the state’s long shoreline, which presented miles of opportunity for smugglers.
Even after Prohibition ended, the good times were slow to get rollin’ in Virginia. Although the 21st amendment was ratified in 1933, serving liquor “by the glass” remained illegal in Virginia until 1968. That meant you could purchase bottles of alcohol at a state-run store, but you still couldn’t buy a mixed drink in a bar or restaurant.
Thankfully, times have changed, and at Still, you don’t have to worry about a Treasury official kicking in the door and shouting “This is a raid!” You can relax, admire the attention to historical detail, and most of all, enjoy a few drinks that are far superior to anything you would have choked down in an actual speakeasy.
With a menu that organizes its drinks by type of glass, and a spirits list that distinguishes whiskey from whisky (many offerings from both), it’s pretty clear that Still has a healthy respect for cocktails poured properly. The drink list is loaded with classics that have by and large become scarce – Boilermakers, Gin Rickies, Amaretto Flips, Gibsons. The recipes themselves seem strictly traditional, adhering to the original conception of a cocktail – spirit, sugar, water, bitters, and little more. Still’s Manhattan, for instance, is made with rye whiskey, and their Old Fashioned isn’t a graveyard of muddled fruit.
Already in the right frame of mind, I happily settled in with Melissa, her cousin Mary, and Mary’s fiancé Gabe for an evening of classics – some famous, some forgotten, all delicious. I began with a Negroni – gin, sweet vermouth, Campari, and soda, with a lemon twist.
This was my first ever Negroni, and Still’s version was well made and eminently drinkable. Unfortunately, it left me with the mistaken impression that I actually like Negronis. I ordered one at a different bar last weekend and quickly discovered that I loathe Campari, the intense flavor of which was mitigated somewhat by the soda in Still’s version. But I digress.
Mel tried ordering a Ramos Gin Fizz, but was told it would take a half-hour to prepare; apparently there’s some egg white in there that requires a whole lotta shakin’. She opted instead for a Tangerine Burst, a mix of Finlandia tangerine vodka, lemon juice, Chambord, and champagne. Arriving in considerably less time than the gin fizz would have, the first three ingredients gave it an intriguing fruity flavor, while the champagne kept the drink from being overly sweet.
Gabe opted for a Sazerac. Unsurprisingly, Still kept close to the traditional composition of this New Orleans-based classic – Bourbon, Peychaud bitters, sugar cube, and water, in an absinthe-rinsed glass.
Mary’s Sidecar was a potent blend of sweet and sour – brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice. The origins of this fine drink are the subject of fierce debate, with bartenders on two continents taking credit for both the composition and the inspiration for the name. Regardless, it’s an old drink, and it requires a deft hand to properly balance the flavors. Still’s version was splendid.
One of the best things about a bar like this is that it gives you the opportunity to try some venerable cocktails that you’ve heard of but have fallen by the wayside. Like a Rob Roy.
A Rob Roy is similar to my favorite cocktail, the Manhattan, except it’s made with scotch instead of rye or bourbon. That sounded good to me, and sure enough, this stodgy old chap was drier than its more famous cousin, with a rich, smoky essence.
If cocktails aren’t your thing, Still offers a respectable selection of eight draft beers, most of which are local microbrews. There’s a broader list of bottled craft beers, and I was pleased to see that Boston’s own Harpoon made the list with its Leviathan Imperial IPA. I went with the O’Connor El Guapo IPA, if for no other reason than my amusement at the interesting mix of nationalities reflected in the name.
Gabe went with Still’s eponymous beer, which was pretty basic and pretty good.
Still breaks most dramatically from its historical reverie with its food menu. It probably goes without saying that if an underground bar even served food, it was most likely crapola. Speakeasies definitely didn’t serve tapas. But that’s what you’ll find at Still, which characterizes its food as “worldly eclectic tapas.” We didn’t eat here, which is too bad; I’m sure the duck tacos and mixed game sausage “trilogy” would have made for good blogging fodder. And I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I neglected to order Still’s apple tart, made with bourbon, bacon, maple, and cider caramel.
Don’t suppose I could blame it on the effects of bootleg liquor?
Our 1920s forebears would be nonplussed by our desire to celebrate and imitate a practice that was, in reality, tiresome, dangerous, and of course, illegal. But human nature being what it is, it’s fun to be in on a secret, and there’s a certain thrill to be had in, say, ducking behind a bookcase and giving someone a password to get into an exclusive, hush-hush bar. I suppose it helps when you don’t actually have to worry about being ensnared in a liquor raid.
Any theme-heavy bar like Still runs the risk of being written off as a novelty unless it has substance; fortunately, Still’s drinks are the real deal. And a place like this ensures that even when old cocktails fall out of fashion, they don’t completely disappear. I mean, I don’t know anyone, let alone someone my age, who’s ever walked into a garden-variety bar and ordered a Rob Roy. But I feel richer for having had the chance to do so.
The prices here are considerably more affordable than in Boston, though not as cheap as the $0.50 you might have plunked down for a drink in a genuine speakeasy. The cocktails we got ranged from $6.50 to $9.50, and only the elusive Ramos Gin Fizz goes as high as $10 (probably to dissuade you from making the poor bartender shake it for 30 minutes). Beers are about $6.50, on average.
The folks behind Still certainly take their drinks seriously, but they have a lot of fun with their 1920s theme. They host cool events that give you a reason to dust off your fedora or flapper duds, like an End of Prohibition Party and a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Party (a rather gruesome event to celebrate, but proof that anything can be used as an occasion to raise a glass). Maybe they go a little over the top in trying to make the place look really old – like with exposed iron pipes that, upon closer inspection, are just plastic PVC pipes painted in an orange-gold hue. But the point is to have fun, and theme or no theme, Still is a pretty casual place in which to enjoy a very well-made drink.
And that’s something we should never take for granted.
Address: 450 Court Street, Portsmouth, Virginia