Though the notion of the modern speakeasy is enticing in theory, its execution can be contrived and esoteric, with critics citing overpriced drinks and an elitist attitude. But when management sets authenticity, approachability and a truly great bar experience as its goals, the concept works, no matter the location or theme. The Bookstore Speakeasy in Bethlehem, Pa., effortlessly transports patrons to the past, one sip at a time.
Bethlehem’s rapid growth and rebirth from its steel town past, as well as its location — both “off the beaten path” and accessible to Philadelphia and New York — made it an ideal spot for the venue, says Bookstore partner Matt Scheller, who runs the space along with Colleen and Matthew Swartz. “Our ultimate goal was to offer an entirely new concept from the typical sports bars and mundane chain offerings that are littered around the Lehigh Valley.” After the partners saw the space and its potential, the original notion of a turn-of-the-century saloon quickly morphed into that of a secret cocktail lair.
After descending several steps and opening a door crudely marked “Bookstore,” patrons see a small room with titles packed on shelves and stacked on the floor. Pulling back a sumptuous velvet curtain reveals the darkly lit bar, with warm amber walls and a pressed tin ceiling. Flickering oil lamps dot small tables adorned with old books into which menus are glued. “Most guests are amazed when they first walk in,” he says. “They feel certain they’ve stepped back in time, which is precisely the vibe we were intending.”
Guests are seated at one of the tables or couches in the 45-seat parlor area or at one of the 15 seats at the nondescript bar. Live period jazz music lends a historically accurate backdrop — the dapperly attired lead singer of house band Drew Nugent and the Midnight Society even sings out of an old megaphone.
One criticism of the modern speakeasy is a predilection of style over substance, but the proof here is in the antique shaker. After opening last fall, the cocktail menu spanned just 10 drinks, most of which contained pre-Prohibition-popular rye or gin. It has since more than doubled and will continue to evolve, with classic and classically inspired libations (all $11) listed with colorful descriptions and user-friendly categories like “Froth,” “Refreshing” and “Citrus & Subtle Sweetness.” The last group includes the best-selling Adams Street Shuffle, created by New York mixologist Damon Dyer (vodka, St-Germain, Aperol, lemon, sugar, absinthe and house-made bitters). The spot offers several varieties of punch, sold in eight-serving bowls for $65, as well as an eclectic selection of beers, including larger format bottles and Belgian Trappist ales, the inventory an offshoot from management’s brew-centric venue, Tap and Table Gastropub in Emmaus, Pa.
The use of fresh juices, premium spirits and house-made bitters is the norm today in any great cocktail parlor, but The Bookstore ups the ante by also eschewing the ice machine. Requests for a rocks drink render a glass filled with one large cube of hand-chipped ice; Highballs and tall drinks get a long column of ice.
Meticulous attention to detail in this type of venue can often translate to lengthy waits for drinks, a fact that doesn’t go unnoticed here. Scheller admits complaints about the wait were common in the beginning, but he says customers have become more familiar with wait times and staff has become more proficient: the average cocktail now takes just three minutes to create.Even seasoned bartenders needed classic cocktail training, which includes thorough study of spirits inventory and history, with a large focus on the proper shake.
To nosh on with your Negroni and novels, a bar menu features nibbles like chickpea popcorn and spiced almonds, as well as lamb and Kobe beef burgers and more than 10 varieties of cheese from Murray’s in New York. Reservation-only “Dinner Hour” is 5-10 p.m., where a four-course prix fixe meal is offered for $35. The newest project is cocktail dinners, during which guest mixologists pair five courses with five 2- to 3-ounce cocktails.
Guest demographics vary wildly, but Scheller says the over-50 crowd tends to visit during earlier hours, while 25- to 35-year-olds frequent late night, and college students from adjacent Lehigh University rarely stop in. “Our unique ambiance, atypical product offerings — both our cocktails and beer — and a lack of televisions tend to keep that audience out.”
Amid the Sidecars and shelves, The Bookstore Speakeasy proves buzz-worthy classic cocktail joints can survive — and thrive — beyond major markets. NCB
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com.