Blame old movies. We’re talking 1920s black-and-white movies. We’re talking the days when you got dressed up to go out for a night on the town. Remember those? Nights out of the house, on the town? Providence’s beloved speakeasy-style bars harken back to the romance of an evening in the big city. They mix up fancy drinks. They keep the lights low. Heck, sometimes there isn’t even a sign on the front door – you just gotta know. In a society that’s all about surveillance capitalism and every click leads to a digital footprint that sticks like gum on your shoe, isn’t it nice to unplug, read a magazine (yes!), put on clothes with buttons, and head out for a grown-up drink? Some of these places have needed to shift their business plan on the quick, now offering hand sanitizer alongside cocktails, making sure patrons wear masks, and even taking the whole shebang outside – but doesn’t that just add to the mystique? Sure it does. Put the yoga pants away, shut off Netflix, and let’s be grown-ups tonight!
A few blocks off of Broadway into residential terrain, you come upon The Avery, a blue-and-purple house occupying a quaint little square with a group of benches and bubbling fountain, and know you’ve discovered something special. While you may have heard of this spot from friends or a quick Google search for hip bars, there’s nothing quite like unwittingly catching a glimpse of it down a little ways where Carpenter Street meets Knight – a lively epicenter of the West End, now even more bustling with patrons spilling outside while the art deco interior remains shuttered – for now.
“Since the start of the year, we’re at 54 percent of sales compared to last year,” owner John Richard explains, listing off the grim statistics many bars are facing amid the challenges of COVID-19. “If you look at where we are since March, we’re at 34 percent of last year’s sales. We’ve had to pivot to exclusively using our outdoor space for service.”
This speakeasy (a moniker Richard resists but admits to its uncanny resemblance to a 1920s-style joint) is fortunate to have a spacious, open square to stagger socially distanced tables. But the vibe is different from the dimly lit, golden-hued bar space configured by designer Kyla Coburn, with coffered ceilings, leather chairs, and intricate wall art.
The guiding principle behind The Avery is to create what Richard refers to as a “Third Place,” or a space outside of work and home where people can congregate over good service, drinks, and atmosphere to share ideas; it’s what he describes in their business plan as “the foundation of a functioning democracy.” Taking a seat around the fountain with a cocktail in hand and other masked patrons around you, it’s clear at least that this tenet hasn’t been lost.
For fall, The Avery continues to offer their usual menu of classic cocktails, along with some seasonal specials. Summer saw the introduction of frozen daiquiris while autumn is all about warmth, featuring a Black Manhattan with 100-proof rye whiskey, savory amaro, and a mix of bitters. The bar itself doesn’t serve snacks, but check across the street at big king for take-away onigiriazu specials (local fish and veg wrapped in nori) or around the corner at Bucktown for Southern comfort staples to enjoy on the patio. 18 Luongo Square • @theaverypvd
Nestled on the corner of South Main and Power Streets is Providence’s newest cocktail lounge, and one of the few still offering the intimacy of indoor service. The Federal-style facade was most recently an interior design studio, though its history reaches back to the early 1800s when it was built; present day, it’s a prime location for those spilling from across the Pedestrian Bridge or finishing a meal at Plant City looking to end the night with a drink. It might even make you forget you’re in the middle of a pandemic, and transport you to a different age of ‘20s.
First-time bar owner Candida Musanti took her time to create an atmosphere reminiscent of a Prohibition-era speakeasy: warm woods – hence the “Walnut” – velvet curtains, gold accents, stone hearth, cozy nooks, and crystal glasses. The menu features specially curated cocktails, plus beer and wine, and Musanti and staff are masked up and ready to serve tableside.
“Given the restrictions and hesitation to go out, I’m really happy with how business has been,” says Musanti, noting a mix of new faces and regular patrons spilling into the bar Thursday through Saturday. While The Walnut Room opened this summer amid the pandemic and quickly embraced safety and social distancing measures (including limited outdoor sidewalk seating), it hasn’t sacrificed the snug sensibility characteristic of the speakeasy bar. “I want it to be an experience for people,” says Musanti, offering a dreamy description of patrons sipping cocktails and chatting, surrounded by rich music and elegant trimmings. But, of course, it’s not entirely what she envisioned at the moment.
“It is really odd to have a bar, and not let people sit at it,” Musanti muses. “There is absolutely a change in the space having those seats empty; we are missing out on a lot of conversations and connections.” However, in lieu of the intimacy created by patrons leaning over a bar, they’ve made sure to focus on the atmosphere to keep it both comfy and cozy, including the decor and a playlist of music curated by a local DJ Brown Bread. “The staff has also done an exceptional job,” she adds, “and the space would not be the same without their personalities shining during their shifts.”
This fall will be the first for The Walnut Room, and Musanti is preparing some subtle shifts to the menu to “match the feel of the season”: “You will see some cocktails with warmer tones and seasonal flavors,” she says, like spiced pear and orange, nutty flavors, and caraway. 245 South Main Street • @thewalnutroompvd
Minutes from busy Atwells Avenue in an enclave of mostly multi-family homes stands a nondescript building that’s obviously a business – but sans signage. You might notice people exiting with cups of green ice cream (that’s sweet pea) or cocktails packaged to go, or dining outside on the patio. What is this place simply identified with the number “51” on a transom window? This storied property has housed various bakeries in the 1920s and ‘30s, and after World War II became a social club briefly referred to as The Old Man Club; today it’s the cool AF spot known as Courtland Club.
Don’t let the “club” part scare you off – you don’t need to be a member – but get this – pre-COVID you could be and you can be again soon. Benefits are on hold for now but Jason Shechtman, founder and director, explains the option as a way to honor the history of the building and region, and for patrons to feel more vested. “Membership is for people who really enjoy spending time at Courtland Club, or think of it as a second home and want to be even more involved.” The big new feature of membership will be a complimentary Members’ Cocktail of the Month. Additionally, members will get invitations to complimentary wine and spirit tasting events, first access to special event tickets, and early access to general reservations along with private bottle lockers.
Like other businesses, Courtland Club found itself closing on March 15 due to COVID-19 but just days later reopened with curbside pick up. Once to-go cocktails were greenlit, Shechtman wanted to make sure they translated their signature emphasis on presentation for takeout: “We didn’t want to just throw a drink in a deli container and call it a day.” The Club succeeded by packaging cocktails in test tubes, naming a drink Tony and serving it in a jar with googly eyes, among other clever vessels.
Currently guests can enjoy outdoor seating on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights by reservation, and cocktails, pizza, and ice cream to-go every day but Monday. When Shechtman and company decided to open outside, it was something they had never done before, and being in a residential area, immediately sought feedback from their neighbors as to how to proceed in a way that would keep everyone happy. “Their input ultimately informed the outdoor floor plan that we went with,” says Shechtman, who built a hinged fence to separate the area for service hours, which collapses when not in use.
In late summer, Courtland Club launched their first “Magic Hour” event, a ticketed prix fixe cocktail and small plate tasting menu with limited seating on the new patio, described as an “evening under the stars”. “The experience was incredibly fulfilling for us, and the public response was way more than we could have hoped for, so we plan to be doing those monthly,” Shechtman explains. “We are also launching Saturday and Sunday brunch, which believe it or not, was originally scheduled to start the weekend of March 14, when everything shut down.” 51 Courtland Street • @CourtlandClub
Visit these speakeasy-esque juice joints to get your fill of creative autumn-themed cocktails. Many are only open for outdoor reservations, carry-out, or limited indoor visits at time of press, so squeeze in a trip while the weather is nice.
The discreet cocktail lounge tucked into The Dean is anything but your run-of-the-mill hotel bar, known for crafting elegant drinks with surprise twists like egg whites, amarillo chiles, and pomegranate honey. While the bar is currently closed, find food and drink from north to-go during Open Air Saturdays, when the Dean Marketplace sets up in the parking lot. “Soon enough,” they promise, “we’ll be drinking whiskey neat hiding in the shadows of The Dean Bar.” 122 Fountain Street, @thedeanbar
This classy downcity bar boasts a dimly lit, minimalist interior with a penchant for creative concoctions. Find 1920s-style snacks like deviled eggs and pickled veg to indulge while you imbibe, available for to-go orders and spacious patio dining by reservation. While the inside remains closed for the time being, order an old fashioned or negroni to enjoy outside, or try the popular bartender’s choice: You choose the spirit, and a mixologist will take care of the rest. 95 Eddy Street
Recently reopened with a lush patio nestled in the Rooms & Works lot with greenery between each table, Far West isn’t quite as much of a secret as it used to be, but plenty worth stumbling upon. The inside exudes industrial charm, and their variety of cocktails combine different styles, like a classic negroni but with mezcal. Add popcorn and finger-food snacks, and enjoy an autumn evening outdoors. 55 Cromwell Street
Perhaps the most authentic speakeasy joint you can find in 21st-century Providence, Justine’s looks like a lingerie shop from a first glance at the mannequins in the windows. But once you enter through curtains, the bar room drips with low-key ambiance, featuring art nouveau light fixtures and blue-and-gold crane wallpaper. A favorite cocktail is Free Man in Paris, a gin drink with a few dashes of absinthe, aperol, and citrus. Try it inside where limited capacity seating is enforced or outside on their secluded patio. 11 Olneyville Square, @isadoras93club
Framed portraits of dapper felines lining the walls are this joint’s defining feature, and they’re now available on T-shirts to make up for not being able to see the real deal in person. The Royal Bobcat currently offers carry-out cocktails, along with Korean-Cajun fusion eats from the in-house Hanju Kitchen, with a few outdoor seats. Seasonal specials infuse jalapeño, sage, and basil into some favorite classic cocktails. 424 Atwells Avenue