Bar Exam: Speakeasy
How authentic is the Omni William Penn’s chic Prohibition-inspired bar? It has an escape route.
Photo courtesy of Omni William Penn Hotel
Looking over my recent posts on bars and restaurants, it seems that I’ve been tending a bit heavily toward sports bars and neighborhood joints. To be fair, I love that sort of watering hole and go there often — for (many) good reasons. Still, one must occasionally tend toward bars devoid of any manner of wing or dipper, where there’s not a TV in sight. The sort of place where patrons are inclined to — gasp — talk in calm, quiet voices rather than boisterous proclamations.
To speak easy, if you will.
Yes, that is the origin of the term — and it’s local. As the menu for Speakeasy, the reopened bar underneath the Omni William Penn, explains via 1890s-ish accounts in The New York Times:
“Speak-easies so named were born in Pennsylvania in 1888, when the Brooks High-License Act raised the state fee for a saloon license to $500 from $50…Kate Hester had run a saloon in McKeesport … she refused to pony up the new license fee and wanted to keep from drawing attention to her newly illicit joint. When her patrons got too rowdy, she hushed them in a hoarse whisper, “speak easy boys, speak easy!”
You can go ahead and extrapolate that straight to telling people that the speakeasy is a Pittsburgh invention, if you’d like.
Speakeasy isn’t just a proud keeper of the flame; it has the credentials to back it up. The room itself was an illegal saloon in the Prohibition era. Staff can point out the escape route for patrons in the event of a bust. The bar sat unused for quite some time before reopening in late 2012. The dimly lit room invites small groups (the capacity is in the mid-40s) for intimate conversations over impeccably crafted drinks.
There are plenty to choose from: House takes on such classics as the Rob Roy and the Gibson, Highballs, locally inspired cocktails (with attendant history listed in the menu), an array of Collins recipes — each of these and more get a full page of options. That’s before you get to the beer, wine, whiskey and scotch lists. Cadres should consider a bowl of the Blind Tiger punch ($45 for six servings); the refreshing mix, created by mixologist Dawn Young, includes Arrack Van Oosten, Bénédictine, Cherry Heering, Chai tea, ginger beer and seasonal fruit.
Speakeasy offers a handful of light food options, rotating seasonally; you won’t find burgers, hoagies or dinner platters down here. Instead, share a charcuterie plate from Crested Duck or try a delicate and delicious jumbo-lump crab tower.
There are a number of spots in Pittsburgh to try innovative cocktails. But none may be as atmospherically rich as Speakeasy — and I’m fairly certain none will offer a breadth of options this wide. Come with a group for a long evening, or sit at the bar, staring at a wall filled with the sort of bottles that have never seen the inside of a dorm room. If you’re not downtown, it’s worth the trip all on its own; if you’re visiting, it’s worth staying here just to be near Speakeasy.