Prohibition was a dark stain on our wonderful history, and it forced many small bars across the country to close. But luckily, there were an abundance of them that stayed open as speakeasies. So where are the oldest? Well, here are five of the oldest and coolest speakeasies in the United States. Cheers!
Tommy’s Detroit Bar, Detroit – 1840
Serving drinks in Detroit since 1840, this small bar, just a shout’s distance from recently resurgent downtown Detroit, has some serious prohibition-era history. In the basement, mysteriously bricked over, is a strange square room with no doors. Researchers from a local university came in, checked the records, broke the wall, and found out that it was the home to a speakeasy during prohibition. This place has some serious bonafides. They found a hidden doorway from the street, and even a tunnel that had been dug all the way to the river. The tunnel, as it turns out, was actually part of the underground railroad and used to smuggle runaway slaved to Canada. However, it was also useful in getting illegal booze out of Canada and back into the states.
If you visit, spare some time to look at the extensive historical display in the backroom. And if the owner, Tommy, is there, be sure to have him escort you downstairs. Oh and it’s haunted too!
Pete’s Tavern, New York City – 1864
If you go to New York City you’ll hear that McSorley’s – established in 1854 – is the oldest pub in town. But you’ll also hear that Pete’s Tavern – established in 1864 – is the oldest continually running pub. The difference, to the people that own Pete’s, is an important one. While McSorley’s switched to near beer during prohibition, Pete’s continued serving booze. They did so by turning their storefront into a flower shop, which you could walk through, open a “refrigerator” door and then step into the bar, where you got the real stuff that McSorley’s wasn’t serving.
They’re known for a few more things, like being the second home to O. Henry, the author of Gift of the Magi and other stories. In fact, it’s said he actually wrote Gift of the Magi at Pete’s while drinking beer.
They’re now a New York staple, and a place you have to visit if you’re in the area.
Neumann’s Bar, St. Paul Minnesota – 1887
This beautiful old bar in North St. Paul started life as a Hamm’s Beer saloon on an old country road in 1887. The founding bartender, William Neumann, passed it on to his son who eventually bought the place and turned it into his own saloon before prohibition. During prohibition, they served near beer on the ground floor. But, a small door opens to a set of stairs. Someone at the bottom floor would call up to a phone at the top and let them know you were coming up. At the top of the stairs was a small, sliding window where the doorman inside would inspect you and then let you in. And then the party began! Apparently, they not only had booze, but also card games and who knows what else.
Neumann’s is still slinging drinks just like the old days, and is a great place to hang out if you make it to Minneapolis or St. Paul. The old, original bar is still in use, and they even rent out the upstairs speakeasy for special occasions.
Merchant Café, Seattle Washington – 1890
Merchant Café was opened when Seattle Washington was a wild west town in the late 19th century. Logging was one of the most lucrative industries in the area, but so too was mining – up in Alaska anyway. Seattle was often the first port that miners would come to after leaving Alaska, and so they have gold to sell, booze to buy, and girls to see. Merchant Café met all three needs by exchanging gold for cash, selling them lots and lots of liquor, and providing girls (whom they called, “seamstresses”) upstairs.
Then prohibition started, and as you can imagine, they really didn’t care. The basement of the bar was turned into a speakeasy and the party continued. You can still head down into the speakeasy today and drink like the old timers did during the 1920s.
Townhouse, Venice CA - 1915
The Townhouse is something special. Opened originally as a “buffet”, basically a bar that serves food, the place was a popular hangout in the newly developed part of the LA area called Venice. The founder, Cesar Menotti, an Italian immigrant, ran the saloon diligently right up until 1920, when prohibition went into effect. Then he stopped serving…upstairs. Instead of giving up his saloon he moved the entire thing downstairs, and then turned the top into a grocery store.
The place was probably the worst kept secret in Venice, as it was a pretty popular place. It was also connected to other businesses in the area by a series of tunnels, so it’s thought that Menotti was also supplying nearby hotels.
If you go today the bar upstairs and down has been returned to their prohibition-era glory. The speakeasy hosts live shows, so be sure to see one of their great acts while you’re there.
We hope you enjoyed this hop through time, history and the U.S. Great bars are out there to find, and you just found five more of them. Cheers!