Gin and Bear It: It’s Not So Easy Getting a Drink at D.C.’s Newest 1920s-Themed Bar
The wooden door that leads, eventually, to Harold Black, a new 1920s-style “speakeasy” above Acqua Al 2 in Eastern Market, is unmarked, and the inside reveals nothing but a long empty hall. I would have missed it if I didn’t know it was there. The hallway leads up a set of stairs, then down another corridor to the front of Suna, another new restaurant from the owners of Acqua Al 2. A door for Harold Black is nowhere in sight.
I tell the host at Suna where I’m headed, and he disappears behind another sliding wooden door blending into the wall that I hadn’t noticed before. He returns a moment later, having checked my reservation, and leads me inside a dimly lit room outfitted in metal, wood, and leather. There are four seats on each side of the bar and four tall, deep booths, partially partitioned off from each other with bookcases displaying antiques and old books. The blinds block out the street, and the only lighting comes from candles and a few filament bulbs. It does feel somewhat clandestine.
Harold Black, which opened at 212 7th St. SE in mid-December, is the latest in the D.C. area’s explosion of so-called “speakeasies.” What started with the reservation-only, dress code-required policy at Alexandria’s PX in 2006 has grown into a whole genre of bars with unmarked doors, passwords, or sometimes just a close-quartered windowless room. The term “speakeasy” has become ubiquitous, and in the process, mostly meaningless; in New York, where the trend boomed before D.C., the speakeasies are already so trite that they’re often mocked as “speakcheesies.”
Blame the romanticization and nostalgia for the roaring ’20s: The same pop-culture impulses behind the popularity of Boardwalk Empire or Leonardo DiCaprio’s starring role in a new big-screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby have helped create the speakeasy trend monster. Here in D.C., Repeal Day has turned into a whole week of events, parties, and bar specials celebrating the end of Prohibition. And the District’s new (and only) distillery, New Columbia Distillers, nods back to the era with its Green Hat Gin, named after one of the city’s most famous bootleggers.
The love affair with the decade is particularly evident at Harold Black, which is named after co-owner Ari Gejdenson’s grandfather, who was in his 20s during Prohibition and advised Gejdenson on the bar before he passed away in 2011. But the bar goes a step further than other “speakeasies” in the Washington area. Not only is there no sign on the door, no website, no Twitter feed, and no Facebook page, but the phone number isn’t even published anywhere. Instead, owners Gejdenson and Ralph Lee have been giving it out to customers directly on business cards with the initials “HB” in the hope that it spreads organically.
“I wanted word to spread as it would have for a bar of this era—mostly word of mouth,” Gejdenson says. “Also, we live in a world of instant gratification. I thought it would be nice to be reminded what it felt like to find a new spot without the Internet guiding us to the front door.” Gejdenson claims he doesn’t want the number to be hard to get. “We are not hiding it at all; we’re just letting it get passed along the old-fashioned way,” he says.
It’s a romantic idea in concept. But in our tech-driven age, in which no one remembers phone numbers anymore, it’s an annoying one in practice. It also doesn’t seem in keeping with the nonexclusive, nonpretentious vibe the owners say they want.
I did a little experiment and asked three friends not involved in the D.C. media or food scenes—a preschool teacher, a nonprofit Web developer, and a law student—to reach out to their friends and social networks to see how hard it was to track down the number. None of them managed to find it within a day of trying.
Of course, there are easier ways to obtain the digits. All you have to do is call Acqua Al 2 or Suna and ask. (Though does the average bargoer know all three have the same owners?) And despite its reservation-only policy, Harold Black won’t turn away walk-ins if there’s space available. But walk-ins would have to know it’s there; it’s not the kind of place you stumble across.
Getting the bar’s number is just the first step. You’re supposed to text the number, not call, to get a reservation—something I didn’t even know at first. If you call, you immediately get sent to a recorded message saying, “The Google subscriber you have called is not available. Please leave a message after the tone.” Nothing in the recording would indicate that you’ve dialed the right number.
Bar manager Maro Stanicic, who is responsible for setting up reservations along with Lee, tells me that if someone calls, he doesn’t get a voicemail. He does, however, see the number that called, so he’ll text back with a message asking that person to send a text for a reservation. (If someone calls from a landline, though, they’re out of luck.) Once you know to text, actually nailing down a reservation can involve a lot of back-and-forth messaging. It can also take several hours to hear back, but Stanicic says they try to respond to every text by 4 p.m.
It may be too soon to say whether this word-of-mouth system will ultimately hurt or help the demand for reservations. But when I visited the bar last Saturday, the space was no more than half full from 8 to 9:45 p.m. Other nights, I’m told, have been busier, but Gejdenson says there are extra seats most nights, especially after 11 p.m.
Getting into an actual speakeasy during Prohibition was pretty easy, says Garrett Peck, author of Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t. Although D.C. was supposed to be the model dry city for the country, as many as 3,000 speakeasies operated here. Most of them were run out of people’s homes, and several even existed inside government buildings. According to Peck, almost anyone on the street could direct you to a nearby speakeasy back then.
Does that mean it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition than it is at Harold Black?
“Possibly, yeah,” Peck says. (When I tasked Peck, who’s more ingrained in the media and cocktail world than my friends, with tracking down the number, it only took him seven minutes for a friend of a friend to send him a Facebook message with it.)
The hooch served during Prohibition was also quite different from the fancy cocktails in mason jars masquerading as “moonshine” you see in bars today. Rather than the carefully concocted “elixirs” with barrel-aged maple or elderflower at Harold Black, the majority of liquor during Prohibition was renatured industrial alcohol. Bartenders had to make cocktails just to disguise the foul flavor, Peck says. Gin was very popular because it was easy to produce, and the mid-Atlantic also has a long history of rye whiskey. Many breweries were also allowed to produce non-alcoholic beer during Prohibition, which opened the gates for the real stuff, too. Because the alcohol market was deregulated, there were no consumer protections.
“People look back at Prohibition as kind of this cool time with hipsters drinking cocktails, but the cocktails were pretty bad,” Peck says. “I don’t think you’d want to recreate the true environment with raids and cocktails that might actually be harmful to your health.”
So maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t have any true speakeasies left. But that hasn’t stopped the nostalgia. Gejdenson says he’s always been interested in D.C. history and loves the ’20s—from the style of clothing to the architecture. He’s tried to make Harold Black look like a bar built inside a home, just as speakeasies were during Prohibition.
And the truth is that despite the reservation-making hassle, Harold Black is a cool bar. Stanicic’s $12 cocktails (recently lowered from $14) are well-crafted, and Suna chef Johnny Spero’s bar snacks—ahem, “vittles”—are interesting, yet simple, interpretations of things like chips and dip and a Reuben sandwich.
The menu also lists several “house rules,” which include no cell phones at the bar, no flash photography, and no standing at the bar. (The Gibson and PX have their own sets of similar “rules.”) The regulations struck me as obnoxious at first, but they ultimately made for a more pleasant evening.
“More and more, getting a drink means fighting for a seat, struggling to hear your friends, or reading subtitles on big screens,” Gejdenson says. “I wanted to build a place for people to come together for a few drinks and a good conversation.”
And indeed, at the end of the night, what makes a bar worth visiting is not how you got the number, but the drinks and the company once you get there. Which means Harold Black might be an even better spot if it dropped the elaborate logistical game. So here you go: (202) 540-0459.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery