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The Charleston speakeasy

Prohibition on King Street, “a nod to the classic 1920s speakeasy.” Images by the author.

By Kathleen Parramore

Speakeasy bars came into existence during Prohibition (1920-1933) and disappeared after the era ended in 1933. The speakeasy was a large part of American culture, and profitable, which kept them flourishing. There were a few changes that came along with speakeasies, as well, such as integration. All races, ethnicities and creeds would mingle. Another change included women coming into the bars as owners. The speakeasy was a culture unto itself.

Speakeasies were so-called because you spoke quietly when speaking about them to keep the cops and neighbors from knowing. However, they were ill-kept secrets — cops enjoyed regular drinks at their own neighborhood speakeasy or at one of the many bars on their patrols. The phrase “speak easy shop” denoted a place that sold unlicensed liquor, and the quality of liquor ranged from okay to terrible, as cheap liquor sold as well as the good stuff and many bootleggers added water to their bottles to increase profits. Very few speakeasies had entertainment, either, since two chairs and a bottle sufficed. Interestingly, the term “dating” started with the liquor-infused parties at speakeasies where young people met without the usual adult supervision.

Owners of speakeasies did everything to hide their liquor, lest they run afoul of the Volstead Act. Many had secret doors and doorbells. The 21 Club in New York City (sadly closed last year) had a camouflaged door and a wine cellar behind a false wall. In case of a raid, there was a button that would send all the bottles crashing into the basement.

Starting in 2000, a speakeasy trend began with the bar Milk and Honey, founded in New York City with another location in SOHO London. Unfortunately, Milk and Honey did not survive the coronavirus pandemic. With Yelp, Instagram, Facebook, etc., the bar scene has been totally disrupted and the whole idea of a secretive bar has been undermined.

But can you still have a speakeasy experience in Charleston? Yes! I started with the Faculty Lounge, which has a discrete location, no signage (only some Christmas lights), a locked door and dark atmosphere and a doorbell for entry. The bartender, Drew, definitely gives the “mixologist” experience. I sampled his dry martini (excellent) and an over-the-top habanero-infused tequila. The latter will bring with it a mild headache the next day but is entirely worth it.

The author with Don Miller at the Faculty Lounge.

The unremarkable outside of the Faculty Lounge belies the interior: dark, high-gloss-painted walls, no windows, and an attractive bar and lounge seats. No food is served except an occasional hot dog and bag of chips. One Yelp writer described the lounge as being for anyone in a suit, flannel, dress or sweats: all are welcome. It’s got a neighborhood feel and everyone at the bar is friendly and talkative. If you are hungry later, Renzo across the street is excellent.

Bar and seating at the Faculty Lounge.

Next up was King Street! My first stop was Prohibition. The website describes it as “a nod to the classic 1920s speakeasy,” and the vintage-inspired decor does make you feel like you are going back in time. With tasting menus, inventive cocktails and music on most nights, you are many steps removed from the speakeasy/dive experience. Try the 547 Manhattan and sample some of the appetizers, and you won’t be disappointed.

Further south on King Street is The Belmont lounge. Dim lighting, a black-and-white tile floor and comfortable lounge seating makes this a perfect spot while waiting for a reservation in the neighborhood. With classic black-and-white films shown on the back wall, it’s got a chic and sophisticated atmosphere and you can actually hear each other inside the bar. With the right company, you might even find the atmosphere to be sultry. My drink recommendation would be the Bells of Jalisco, which is a tequila, mezcal, jalapeno, honey and lime mix. When you walk in, the smell you are smelling is the homemade pop tarts … do not miss these!

Being a gin drinker, I could not miss another trip to the Gin Joint. This is a fancy cocktail place with the vibe of a 1920s bar. Gin Joint opened in 2010 and is focused on classic cocktails. Given its location, you might think it’s a tourist spot, but don’t be fooled. This is a serious cocktail place. It’s a very small place and probably suited more to couples; the best seats are in the back so you can watch the bar magic. There is only one spot behind the bar and if it’s busy, be patient. The wait is worth it. There is also a beautiful small garden to sit in. As for the small snacks menu available, I recommend the cheese plate.

Next up is one of my personal favs: Vintage Lounge, a swanky bar with beautiful velvet seating and low lighting. Architectural Digest noted it as the most beautifully designed bar in South Carolina. There is an excellent selection of bourbons, but I opted again for gin, this time in a French 75 with cava and lemon, which was excellent. The large selection of wines by the glass focuses on small production wines, and from the food menu the charcuterie board is a wonderful choice. This is another location where you can hear everyone at your table, and there is a dog-friendly patio and music on the weekends.

“Blind tiger” was a term used for a speakeasy during Prohibition because patrons would hand over money to view a (fictitious) blind animal and receive a shot of illegal booze in the transaction. No blind animals and no illegal drinks here, but we do have our own Blind Tiger on Broad Street. The Charleston’s Choice winner for best bar for 2019 remains a fixture in Charleston society. If you are looking for a fun crowd, elevated bar food and terrific drinks, this is the place. Now that there’s less summer heat, the patio out back is a favorite. The classic burger with double patties is my recommendation, along with the beer flight. I’m still trying to figure out what the sauce is … a tangy spicy aioli maybe. And if you are a brussels sprouts lover like I am, get the appetizer!

I am eagerly awaiting the opening of the speakeasy in what was once a back pool room at the newly revamped Big John’s Tavern. A movable bookcase leads to the interior of this reservation-only venue, and you will be able to order wine and cocktails by pushing a button to signal the bartenders that it’s time for another round.

Get out of your usuals and try one (or more) of the above!

Faculty Lounge: 391 Huger St.

Prohibition: 547 King St.

The Belmont: 511 King St.

Gin Joint: 182 East Bay St.

Vintage Lounge: 545 King St.

Blind Tiger: 36-38 Broad St.

Big John’s: 251 East Bay St.

After 25 years in the technology field, Kathleen Parramore earned an MSc in nutrition from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and then a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech. She is a writer, consultant and dinner party caterer in the Charleston area.

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