When Prohibition came to D.C. in 1917, three years before it was enacted into law nationwide, all legal bars in the District were shutdown. But Prohibition didn't succeed in eradicating alcohol from the nation's capital. Instead, the 267 licensed saloons became nearly 3,000 speakeasies, disguised in a variety of forms, from a candy shop in the shadow of the Capitol dome to a jazz club in a drugstore basement.
As historian Garrett Peck notes in his book Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't, Prohibition helped completely change the landscape of Washington—for starters, it helped turn the U Street district into a center for entertainment and helped desegregate areas that had long been starkly divided between black and white residents, as people from all over began to mingle at speakeasies. Prohibition also changed the District's taste for alcohol; by shutting down breweries and replacing them with illegal venues selling home-distilled liquor, city residents gave up beer and wine in favor of stronger cocktails.
Today, visitors can sample D.C.'s vintage cocktails at several speakeasy-inspired bars, including the The Gibson, Harold Black, and The Columbia Room, a ten-seat, reservation-only cocktail bar located behind an unmarked door in the back of another bar, The Passenger. All feature low lights, '20s-era decor and plenty of strong booze.
But for those looking to truly venture into D.C.'s illicit past, the sites of a few authentic speakeasies can still be tracked down. Although most were located in private homes in the city's downtown, many of which have been torn down, a few have since converted into fully-legal restaurants and bars, where visitors can grab a drink and remember D.C.'s roaring past.
Today, 1223 Connecticut Ave., just south of Dupont Circle, is home to Dirty Martini, a restaurant, bar and lounge. But during Prohibition, the building's fourth floor was home to one of D.C.'s most prominent speakeasies, the Mayflower Club. The speakeasy was home to a 30-foot bar that served elegant cocktails to high-society clients and, according to Peck, decorated with a mural of Mahatma Gandhi and other famous figures playing the piano.
In 1933, in the waning days of Prohibition, police raided the speakeasy, seizing large quantities of illegal alcohol and arresting the proprietor, Zachariah "Zebbie" Goldsmith. His attorney managed to get the charges dropped, however, since Prohibition was repealed a week before Goldsmith's day in court. Police finally nabbed him the following year, after Prohibitions end, for failing to pay federal liquor taxes and allowing gambling.
1223 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 503-2640.
When Beuchert’s Saloon, a farm-to-table restaurant and bar in D.C.'s Eastern Market neighborhood, began renovating its space, contractors found a hidden sliding door—which was covering hundreds of empty Prohibition-era liqueur bottles. The original Beuchert’s Saloon opened in 1880, under the ownership of German businessman and Capitol Hill local John Ignatius Beuchert. The saloon was converted during Prohibition into a sewing shop, but, as the discovery of the bottles shows, it probably never lost its boozy-appeal.
Today, eaters hit up Beuchert's Saloon for its mix of locally-sourced American fare and specialty cocktails—they even have prosecco on tap. The restaurant's interior pays homage to its old-timey roots, with decor inspired by post-Prohibition American dining saloons as well as Paris in the 1920s. Expect hanging chandeliers, exposed brick and tiny dark-wood tables dotting the long, narrow space.
In 1926, the owner of a drugstore on the corner of 11th and U St., N.W., opened a jazz club in the basement of his store. He named it Club Caverns, and many famous jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, frequented the stage. While it was never busted by police, legend has it the club served up more than just great music. Peck notes, waiters at jazz clubs up and down U Street likely sold bottles and carefully disguised cocktails ("a highball in a coffee mug") to patrons on the sly.
In the 1950s, it changed its name to Crystal Caverns, then Bohemian Caverns, the name it goes by today. The interior sports a combination of '20s-inspired decor and fake rock (cavern-like) walls. "It's still one of the best jazz clubs to go to in the city," Peck says.
2001 11th St, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. (202) 299-0800.
Nowadays, Tune Inn on Capitol Hill is now a beloved neighborhood dive bar, popular with locals and politicians alike. When the bar's kitchen caught fire in 2011, everyone from former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton to former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels tweeted their concerns. But before the D.C. spot became the famed Tune Inn, it was a Capitol Hill candy shop, catering to local's sweet tooths upstairs—and their boozy desires downstairs. Peck explains that Tune Inn, when it was a candy shop during Prohibition, also operated as a illicit liqueur store. Patrons would come to the shop, and if they knew the right word, descend to the basement, where they could purchase bottles of alcohol to take with them. When Prohibition finally ended, Tune Inn claims that they were able to obtain the second legal liquor license given out by the city.
Historic Gaslight Building
Today, the Historic Gaslight Building, located at 1020 16th St., N.W., is an unassuming office building—but during Prohibition, it housed a prominent social club, known as the Gaslight Club, with a well-hidden speakeasy on the third floor. On the inauguration day of Calvin Coolidge, March 4, 1925, federal agents raided the club, arresting the owner, a retired admiral, along with 25 others, including senior government officials and diplomats.
To find the speakeasy, the agents had to discover its secret entrance—located in the men's room. To enter, patrons had to turn a faucet handle, which opened a hidden door. According to Peck, the club's manager, who wasn't arrested, played dumb about the speakeasy's disguise, stating "Why, I've used that men's room a hundred times, and never knew there was anything but an unused storeroom in back of it."