Philadelphia’s revived speakeasy scene
Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company is a softly lit but relatively modern, subterranean drinking space. (Jack Dakin)
Prohibition in the United States may have ended long ago, but the appeal of the speakeasy – a secret drinking den characterized by unmarked entrances and strong alcohol – is alive and well within the Philadelphia drinking scene.
The latest effort comes from Philadelphia Distilling, the producers of Bluecoat American Dry Gin, Penn 1681 Rye Vodka and Vieux Carre Absinthe Superieure, which released a modern-day moonshine, XXX SHINE White Whiskey, in late May. Made from Pennsylvania corn, XXX SHINE White Whiskey pays tribute to the state’s history of high-quality moonshine production and represents the first distilled moonshine in southeastern Pennsylvania since before Prohibition was repealed.
From distilleries to drinking establishments, Philadelphia’s contemporary speakeasies celebrate an era of disguised deviance, where the lights were dim, the crowd was sexy and a stiff drink reigned supreme. Recapture the character and spirit of Prohibition by sneaking into a few of the city’s most popular sotto voce spots.
Given the mystery shrouding the Rainstead Room – no advertising, no website – one might be surprised to learn that it belongs to Philadelphia restaurateur Steven Starr. But Philadelphia’s purest adaptation of a vintage speakeasy is a gem hidden in an alley near Rittenhouse Square (at the corner of 20th and Rainstead Streets). A small red “R” on an otherwise unmarked door indicates that you have arrived. Inside the faintly lit establishment, patrons occupy a long bar and cosy up in red leather booths while hard-working bartenders prepare pre-Prohibition inspired cocktails. The walls are adorned with vintage nudes, an Art Deco chandelier hangs from a tarnished, mirrored ceiling and bowls of fresh lemons, limes, oranges, mint and candied ginger line the antique bar.
The cocktail menu features 10 seasonal drinks and changes throughout the year. A summer menu standout is the pina colada (rum, pineapple, coconut), but we recommend you try the year-round staple “bartender’s choice” and let a well-versed mixologist concoct a modern adaptation of a classic beverage, such as the East Side Gimlet (gin) or Final Word (rye whiskey). The refined cocktails incorporate traditional spirits, fresh-squeezed juices and aromatics, such as rose water, to stimulate your sense of smell.
Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company
Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company derives its name from south Philadelphian Max “Boo Boo” Hoff’s Prohibition-era alcohol ring, the largest in the country during the late 1920s. It was among the first in the city to honour speakeasy culture when it opened a seating-room only, craft cocktail lounge in June 2009. It remains the most well known of the Philadelphia speakeasies and due to its popularity, the most difficult to get into. Upon arrival, a sharply dressed man will approach your party and let you know if you can be accommodated. If so, you are lead into a long, narrow, subterranean drinking space, where the décor is simple – softly lit but relatively modern – and ends in an old-fashioned marble bar.
The drink list is extensive and divided into categories: Cool it Down, Easy Going, The Flowing Bowl, Rebellious Spirits, and I Asked her for Water, She Gave me Gasoline. Like the Rainstead Room, the menu rotates throughout the year. Juices are freshly squeezed and combined with unusual, yet exciting bitters, tinctures, syrups and spirits. For summer, try the Red Medicine (scotch, Pimm’s #1, house grapefruit and cinnamon syrups, demerara, fresh lime juice, angostura and grapefruit bitters) or the Long Tall Shorty (reposado tequila, Cocchi Americano, house watermelon syrup, fresh lemon juice, Jamaican jerk bitters and soda).
The Farmer’s Cabinet opened in May and is a lively restaurant and bar where a dapper pianist plays ragtime and sings into an old time microphone. It is lit by candles and decorated with wooden casks, old farming tools, vintage photographs and long communal tables. A friendly wait staff looks the part of 1920s parlour servers. The ambiance evokes a simpler time, with an old fashioned emphasis on good food and good drink.