Imagine you’re inside a bar in San Diego. Let’s say it’s in the attic of a shoe-repair shop in a part of town where you don’t want to walk around at night. You can get the password only by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to a post-office box. You enter through a door of stacked shoeboxes to be greeted by a sultry flapper who leads you to a dark secluded corner. The earnest bartender has a waxed moustache and a chemistry set. Your cocktail is made of Old Tom Gin and homebrewed twig bitters. The canned music is the 1926 “Hotcha Trot” by The Tepid Three.
You feel like you’ve stumbled through a secret time portal into the jazz age, à la Paris at Midnight. Scott and Zelda might enter at any second, tossing off jokes about shoes and booze and 23-skidoos.
Where are you?: If you said, “a speakeasy,” you’re probably not alone. But I’m calling bullshit on that. A speakeasy is an actual thing. Words don’t just mean what you want them to. Or maybe I should just throw in the bar towel? Get with the cocktail program?
Let’s get some historical bearing on this: First, the term “speakeasy” didn’t originate during prohibition; it preceded it. In 1888, the Brooks High-License Act raised Pennsylvania’s fee for a bar license from $50 to $500. According to the 1889 Cheney Sentinel newspaper, McKeesport bar owner Kate Hester refused to pay the new license fee and took her business underground, like many other saloonkeepers in the state. When her customers got too rowdy and ran the risk of exposing her illegal operation, she would admonish them to “Speak easy, boys! Speak easy!” Thus, according to the article, “Unlicensed saloons in Pennsylvania are known as ‘speak-easies.’”
When alcohol was federally outlawed in 1920, the term became ubiquitous for establishments that circumvented the law to serve or sell booze. Everything in a speakeasy was on the down-low to keep the cops from shutting the joints down—though some police were bribed by the often gangster-controlled owners to look the other way. The secrecy and danger of speakeasies added to their appeal and counterbalanced the unpleasantness of having to endure the often poor-quality of illegal homebrews.
This is the modern world: The bars in downtown San Diego that get called speakeasies most often, Noble Experiment and Prohibition, both have names that refer to that decade of illegal drinking, and their access filters, like secret doors and exacting reservation policies, also evoke 1920s speakeasies, but these tactics serve a legitimate modern purpose for the burgeoning craft-cocktail movement—by limiting the number of people clamoring at the bar, the drinks can be made with more care.
But that level of care and effort to elevate the quality of the cocktails themselves, as well as the actual relative ease of access to these bars, make them more similar to the great saloons of the 1890s or 1930s—particularly Noble, where the concept is executed about as well as it possibly could be.
But they are not speakeasies: You might say, “OK, D.A., they’re not real speakeasies, but speakeasies are a thing of the past, so we can use that word now to mean a tribute to the past. It’s like calling those Nerf battles at Medieval-themed restaurants ‘jousting.’ Of course it’s not really jousting, but actual jousting is history, so who cares?” Sorry, your analogy is false.
Not long ago—in fact, just a few years back—San Diego had a real speakeasy. Using the pretense of exclusive, private parties, the speakeasy was difficult to access: You had to be invited or find a way onto the list through someone in the know. It was located in a non-residential area in an unmarked, dilapidated building. Out on the street, an unassuming guy made sure nobody was loud or loitering out front.
Once inside and cleared by the list-keeper, you’d find yourself in a giant space with a full kitchen, two bars, massive art displays, sculptures, partitioned seating and dining areas, a big stage with a Latin-jazz orchestra, a wide dance floor populated with serious salsa dancers and everyone in the place dressed to the nines and sipping from flasks—as well as a ventilated lounge where guests smoked marijuana openly. A real speakeasy.
The organizers of these every-other-month events took a real risk in calling these parties and running them like a nightclub without a license, not to mention letting people burn the illegal plant. It was thrilling to be a part of it. I don’t know why the events stopped, but there had always been a feeling each time that “this could be the last one.”
Vipers can give the term some fangs: So, I hereby reiterate that since the death of the clandestine place I mentioned above, as far as I know, there are no speakeasies in San Diego. In the 1920s, alcohol was illegal and pot was legal. In the 21st century, it’s the other way around. So unless hash brownies are on the menu, your bar is no damn speakeasy.
Today’s brave souls of New Amsterdam are the operators of medical-marijuana dispensaries, who are constantly struggling to operate in a fog of confusing and conflicting laws. So, if you can join a collective that has managed to survive the crackdowns, and they have a couch in there, well, maybe that’s what we should start calling a speakeasy.
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