If you’re over 21 in D.C., there is no shortage of options to enjoy a drink or many drinks (Nightmare on M Street, anyone?). But if you’re looking for something other than happy hours, bottomless brunches or $5 shot/beer combos at your favorite sticky dive bar, it might be time to check out the District’s speakeasy scene.
Speakeasy bars gained prominence during the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Often hidden behind false walls and secret passwords, they gave some relief to those who wanted a taste of the nightlife experience. If you’re looking in the right place, you can still find these homages to the past today.
The Gibson originally opened to limited fanfare. Only people in the restaurant industry knew of this secret hideout, and the establishment didn’t open to the public until 2009. Just behind an unmarked gray door you will find not one, but three different bars, each boasting their own menu. The names of the cocktails vary from mysterious (El Diablo, Scorched Earth) to sexy (Scorched Earth, Behind the Veil) and fun (Skeptical Sex Pot, Jake Breaks Promises).
A highlight of The Gibson’s menu is the Pixies New Parlor Trick. It is equal parts beverage and performance piece as the waiter sets a lemon ablaze before setting it sizzling into the glass full of bourbon, peach liqueur, raspberry syrup and decanter bitters. Food is limited to basic bar munchies like mixed nuts and olives, but the low lighting and quiet ambiance make this speakeasy worth the reservation.
Where: 2009 14th St. NW
Metro: U Street, Yellow and Green Lines
When the blue light is on, PX is open for business. Of all the speakeasies in the area, this formal Virginia establishment is probably the most exclusive. PX sets a maximum occupancy of 25 and requires a $50 cancellation fee attached to your reservation.
Once inside the venue, you become engulfed in the warm and cozy atmosphere. The mixologists behind the bar provide genuine and friendly service, and if you’re lucky to go on a night like I did, the patrons will also entertain you with great conversations. PX’s ambience and beverage choices undoubtedly resemble a gentleman’s cigar lounge from a century ago.
Complementing the experience is the fact that PX is attached to Eamonn's, a British pub downstairs. I enjoyed fish and chips with a drink called the Smoker’s Delight, a fruity beverage with a smoky bite resulting from a combination of tobacco tea, honey and lemon. If you’re looking for a quiet place to slow sip, PX will exceed your expectations.
Where: 728 King St., Alexandria
Metro: King Street, Yellow and Blue lines
You can’t help but sound suave as you saunter up to restaurant Acqua Al 2 and say, “We’re looking for Harold Black.” The man at the front leads you to a door where you walk up the stairs and knock on a false wall. Harold Black is a converted upstairs apartment named after the owner’s grandfather, whose portrait hangs on the wall near the bar.
The menu boasts of beer and wine in addition to cocktails which are worth the $12 price tag. Smoke on the Rio Grande, a drink that starts out smooth and goes down like sriracha, makes for a very unique flavor experience. For a fall treat, the Jackalope’s bonded apple brandy, lemon, dry vermouth, grenadine and egg white goes down smoothly. The food menu includes classy twists on old favorites, but the fish tacos stand out as one of Harold Black’s best options.
Where: 212 7th St. SE
Metro: Eastern Market, Orange and Blue Lines
A giant mirror is all that stands between The Speak and the outside world. The Speak has branded itself an ‘unpretentious speakeasy’ (no mixologists here!), and its tagline could not be more accurate. Instead of a leather booklet containing cream pages of drinks with unique names, the crusty paper menu is modge-podged to a piece of cardboard listing a few staples like daiquiris and old fashioneds.
The bartender poured me the strongest whiskey concoction I’ve ever had, and hip hop classics like Bone Thugs N Harmony and Mobb Deep drowned out our conversation about flavor profiles. The crowd and blaring music sent me back to the era of the speakeasies in the roaring ‘20s, and The Speak remains in a class by itself when compared to the quiet hideaways of the other speakeasies in the area.
Where: 1413 K St. NW
Metro: Farragut North, Red Line