For those seeking an oasis amid the late-night King Street bustle in Old Town Alexandria, Jolly Roger marks the spot. Jolly Roger the pirate, that is—whose flag, accompanied by a blue lantern on Columbus Street, serves as the only clue to the presence of a bar known as PX. No sign. No address. Just Jolly.
That’s because PX, short for personne extraordinaire, is part of a growing trend of latter-day speakeasies—which, though now perfectly legal, are throwbacks to the illicit bars that thrived during Prohibition. With unmarked entrances, dodgy locales and even password-protected passages, these nouveaux speaks are popping up across the Old Dominion—from the River City on up to the nation’s capital—and proving that everything old is new again.
And while there’s no longer the need to “speak easy” or keep drink orders hush-hush, such clandestine canteens as PX, The Gibson in D.C. and The Mint in Richmond maintain a historic sense of exclusive elegance with reservations-only systems and carefully crafted cocktails.
Hidden above a fish-and-chipper owned by the team behind Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, PX ushers 30 patrons at a time into a world of Jazz Age ambience with dark polished wood, mirrored walls, glimmering chandeliers and antique barware. A short list of house rules—from “When a lady says, ‘No, thank you,’ she means it” to “If you let someone in … you’re out” and no standing at the bar—helps create an intimate environment where guests feel comfortable and the cocktails speak for themselves. “I didn’t want to open a bar where people are reaching over me or blowing smoke in my face,” explains Todd Thrasher, PX’s owner and master mixologist, of the bar’s creation in 2006. “I just wanted a bar where you can hold a conversation and be transported to a different era—when drinks were civilized.”
Boasting homemade bitters, sodas and even tonic, Thrasher serves up an oft-changing menu of unique combinations. They include the Smoker’s Delight—a mix of tobacco, honey syrup, honeycomb and Basil Hayden’s bourbon—and the BLT, featuring bacon-infused vodka, tomato water and ice cubes made of juiced iceberg lettuce. Thrasher sticks to seasonal, and many local, ingredients—including Polyface Farm eggs (the frothed whites add a creamy consistency) and Richmond’s own Cirrus vodka—to craft concoctions for a clientele ranging from “people celebrating their 21st birthdays to 80-year-olds who remember the real speakeasies and blind pigs,” he says.
But PX didn’t start out as a speakeasy, he adds. “I just wanted to create a bar, my own place where I had a chef’s table of sorts to create cocktails.” He insists that the aim is more altruistic than elitist. “Our ultimate goal is to teach people to drink a little bit better and try to expand their idea of the cocktail.”
Likewise, The Gibson opened in November 2008 with the desire to fill a niche in the district for a bar whose “sole dedication was to cocktails,” and particularly those of the pre-Prohibition era, says the bar’s manager, Tiffany Short. “We wanted to hearken back to the classics, to showcase drinks that had been long forgotten.”
Offering such vintage libations as the Sazerac, made of rye whiskey and Peychaud’s bitters in an absinthe-washed glass, and the Martinez, the “grandfather of the martini,” featuring Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur, The Gibson’s only house rule is that guests enter with an open mind.
Its front door is unmarked, giving way to a low-lit lounge with inviting booths and flickering candlelight. “Really, we just wanted to create an atmosphere where you could come in and get lost in time a little bit,” says Short. Because The Gibson’s allows only as many guests as there are seats (48 in total), “the atmosphere helps you to relax,” she adds. “There’s no shoulder to shoulder.”
And in Richmond, after Julep’s in Shockoe Bottom has “closed” Friday and Saturday nights, a side door with sliding grate welcomes in-the-know guests to The Mint—the newest speak on the block (it’s been open since June), with shuttered windows, “restricted access” and innovative drinks with names like the Jack Skellington (featuring homemade port-infused pumpkin syrup) and the Brown Family Bear (with pomegranate-rhubarb marmalade).
Like PX, The Gibson and their Prohibition-era predecessors, The Mint won’t spend a dollar on advertising—it gains its fame by word of mouth alone, albeit with a little help from Craigslist. “For fun every now and then, I’ll post a password for the night under the ‘Missed Connections’ listings and offer a free cocktail to guests who use it—just to keep things exciting,” says Bobby Kruger, The Mint’s manager and beverage director. Hint: Past passwords have included ‘kumquat’ and ‘rosemary.’
But for all the charades, the intent is not to be exclusive for exclusivity’s sake, says Kruger. “The exclusivity serves a purpose for us, because it allows us to cater to a smaller audience and serve some really quality cocktails without long wait times or a loud setting. It’s all about not compromising the experience for those who are having a good time.”
So celebrate your 21st Amendment rights with a toast to history at one of Virginia’s speaks. But please, embrace the time-honored tradition of a true cocktail. As a sign at PX puts it: “To stay in our good graces, don’t just order a vodka tonic.”
728 King St., Alexandria, 703-299-8384
2009 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-232-2156
1719 E. Franklin St., Richmond, 804-377-3968