Checking out the Speakeasy
My friend Monica and I like to check out new restaurants and bars, and during her Christmas break we finally got around to visiting the Speakeasy in Albany, which opened last summer.
Below the City Beer Hall on Howard Street, the Speakeasy is designed to evoke the feel of a top-secret and highly exclusive Prohibition-era bar. I’d heard that reservations were a good idea, but I was skeptical, and didn’t get around to calling until late in the day. After all, one of the reasons I like living in Albany is that reservations are seldom necessary or required for eating at local restaurants. Which is why I was a bit startled to learn that a table wouldn’t be available until 12:15 a.m.
“Oh,” I said. “That’s too late.”
But the Speakeasy employee at the other end of the line wasn’t trying to discourage me.
“We open at 8 p.m.,” she said. “You could swing by and see whether there’s any room at the bar. You don’t need a reservation to sit there.”
This seemed like a reasonable plan, and so Monica and I planned on an early arrival. I’d heard that there was some sort of dress code, but details were sketchy, and I settled for a clean sweater and slacks, rather than my normal weekend attire of a hooded sweatshirt and old blue jeans. Having hiked six miles in the Catskills that day, I felt like I was entitled to wear sneakers and did so, though it later occurred to me that other people might not see things my way, and if Monica and I were barred entry to the Speakeasy it would be because I had refused to wear a decent-looking pair of shoes.
You don’t just walk into the Speakeasy. You ring a doorbell and wait for someone to open the door and ask whether they can help you. “We don’t have reservations,” Monica said, as soon as the door was opened. But this was OK. “Would you like to sit at the bar?” the woman who answered the door asked.
She led us inside, took our coats (I left my cell phone in my coat pocket, as cell phone use is barred at the Speakeasy), and seated us. We were promptly handed a menu that featured a long list of Prohibition-era cocktails on one page and a long list of newer cocktails on the other page. I decided to start off with a drink from the Prohibition menu, and ordered a Pisco Sour — a foamy South American cocktail with a sweet-and-sour taste. Ingredients typically include pisco, a grape brandy, lemon juice, an egg white and bitters. I also ordered rabbit rillettes, which I’d never eaten before but Monica assured me were delicious. And they were.
I was extremely impressed by the Speakeasy. That surprised me, as I am somewhat leery of restaurants and bars that pride themselves on having an arcane set of rituals and/or requirements for patrons, which can make me feel uncomfortable. But the Speakeasy had a welcoming and positive vibe, and I immediately felt at ease.
The staff was super nice, and seemed genuinely concerned with how much we were enjoying our drinks, food and the overall ambiance. At some point, a jazz band started up, and I steeled myself for loud music that would make it hard to talk. But the music never got too loud, and provided a nice backdrop to the evening. The interior of the Speakeasy is elegant and dimly lit and exudes coolness, though never in an obnoxious or trying-too-hard type of way.
I ordered a second cocktail off the contemporary cocktail menu, and though I can’t remember its name, I can tell you that it was excellent. Both my cocktails were superb — quite possibly the best cocktails I’ve ever had. I would have loved to try a few more, but I was exhausted and ordering more drinks seemed like a dangerous idea.
I guess I’ll have to return sometime soon, and continue exploring the Speakeasy’s fabulous menu.
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