At least D.C.’s newest so-called “speakeasy” doesn’t have any stupid rules. At the Speak, opening tonight in the basement of 1413 K St. NW, there is no secret phone number. No one will ask you for a password. And photos, mercifully, aren’t banned.
But that doesn’t mean the place is free from revisionist nostalgia for the Prohibition era. There is a “secret” entrance, after all. (Of course secrets aren’t so secret if you have a publicist who invites reporters over for a tour.) As you approach Tattoo Bar, a staircase leads downstairs to a small brick-floored platform with two doors. One leads to a maintenance closet. The other takes you into a mini foyer covered in drywall with a “for rent” sign, an ornate rug, and a giant mirror. In case you didn’t see this coming: the mirror is a door.
“I just love speakeasies,” says Seth McClelland, who was previously an owner of One Lounge. “There’s a few in town, but I don’t think it’s oversaturated just yet. And I think there’s room for something like this. Our take on it: There’s no rules. There’s no number to call. You can stand. You can dance. There might be a DJ here and there on the weekends.”
Over the past year and a half, the D.C.-area native has been traveling the world: He lived on the beach in Tulum, Mexico for 40 days, he helped some friends launch “kind of a secret spot” in New York, he toured “speakeasies” in Las Vegas, and he visited Venice Beach in Los Angeles plus London and Scotland. “I just really wanted to see what our generation’s doing because it’s pretty sweet in the food and drink world,” he says.
The inside of the Speak is very dimly lit and looks more or less just like a normal bar. (In other words, there’s no red velvet booths à la the Sheppard or shelves filled with old books like Harold Black.) As seems to be the bar default these days, the space is outfitted in wood from old shipping crates and barns; the couches and chairs, like the glassware, are mismatched. “It’s 2015. It’s not 1925. We’re not trying to do a theme bar,” McClelland says of the decor.
The cocktail menu is displayed in what McClelland calls a “principal’s office board.” Jeff Coles, who worked with McClelland at One Lounge and more recently bartended at Fado Irish Pub and the Fainting Goat, heads up the beverage program. The menu includes a number of easily recognizable drinks: a margarita, a negroni, a Moscow mule (all $12, tax included). Then there’s also an “ephemera” section of the menu for lesser known cocktails that will rotate. Coles has a number of infusions brewing, including a grilled watermelon, ginger, and basil vodka as well as a “grown-up” version of Fireball made with corn whiskey, honey syrup, orange zest, and cinnamon sticks. Eventually, the Speak aims to have more “experimental” cocktails, whatever that may mean.
“We want to be in the conversation for top cocktails in the city,” McClelland says. “And to do that, you do have to get experimental sometimes and try new things.”
Beers and wines are also available, but limited, as is the food. For now, your only option is Lay’s potato chips. Although the Speak has no kitchen, McClelland is interested in bringing in some food vendors down the line. The foyer at the entrance to the Speak, which McClelland has dubbed “For Rent,” will eventually double as a pop-up shop.
“I want other entrepreneurs to be able to have 200 square feet to show off their handbags or tuxedos or whatever,” McClelland says. “This could be a coffee shop or a little taco joint.”
The Speak opens Tuesday through Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 10 p.m.
The Speak, 1413 K St. NW (downstairs); thespeakdc.com
Photo by Jessica Sidman