Thursday, July 25, 2013

Speakeasy 518

I had made a reservation earlier in the morning, and had confirmed it over the phone just a few hours before the scheduled time. They had my name, the number of people that would be joining me, and the time at which I would be arriving.

When I walked up to the nondescript door under the black awning and a faint red light, I found the doorbell and pushed only once, as the directions clearly stated. Promptly, the door cracked open slightly and my party and I were greeted by a young lady in a black dress and pearls.

“May I help you,” the woman asked, an odd question for an establishment that had just recently confirmed my reservation. However, this isn’t your ordinary establishment; it’s the new Speakeasy 518, and gaining entry is just one part of the underground experience.

“I have a reservation. Bull, party of five.”

“We've been expecting you. Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and we entered the subterranean establishment. As our eyes adjusted to the lack of bright sunlight that was present outside, we were directed to a small seating area. We took a moment to take in our new, unfamiliar surroundings.

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The City Beer Hall as it appears today
A few years ago, before the City Beer Hall opened its doors to the public, I was given a tour of the building with the owners, Kenny and Kaelin. They were in the process of transforming the former Ballinger’s space into the City Beer Hall. They took the time to point out the custom chandeliers and tables, the ice block that formed around the beer taps, and finally, the basement that they were to open in a few years. It was dark then, too: unswept and cavernous.

When the telephone company occupied this building, the switchboard operators did their work here, and the payments – at a time when people paid their bills in person, and with cash – were stored in the vault.

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Now, the bar has been revived. It was tended by two true gentlemen, spending minutes carefully crafting each cocktail. Wanting a closer look at the drink making process - and probably drawn toward the little light that is present in the place - we asked to be moved to the gorgeous stone-top bar. Our request was granted, as Tuesdays are apparently not a popular night for tag-holding members who have first rights to the stools.

The Albany Home Telephone Company during construction. Today, the City Beer Hall.
Photo from the City Beer Hall Facebook page.
What took place over the coming hours was something truly enjoyable. The prohibited use of cell phones made for deep, uninterrupted conversations (hence the lack of photos). Our bartender, Robert*, took the time to explain the complexities of each cocktail, the history behind the cocktails, and the history of his incredible beard.

The cocktails are true works of art and nothing is spared. I won’t try to explain the flavors and complexities of each concoction; you’ll have to experience them on your own.

Take the time to relax, sip each drink, and think about what it must have been like to live in Albany during Prohibition. You’ll soon feel what that means when someone outside rings the doorbell seeking entry: inside, a red light suddenly turns on and your heart skips a short beat. Don’t worry, it’s not the fuzz. You soon relax, realizing that what you are doing is completely legal. This is living history, and the live piano music eases you back into the perfect mood.

Upon leaving, my party and I decided to have one final drink on the patio of the City Beer Hall just one level up from the Speakeasy where we continued the no cellphone rule. It was another enjoyable, yet completely different experience.

Drinks at the Speakeasy are $12, cash only and completely worth it.


*Robert also created three of the cocktails featured in this year's Spirit of Albany competition: Kennedy Sour, Salinger's Caught, and the White Pelican.

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