Speakeasy: uncovering Cleveland's hidden bars

While we haven't had a chance to slide into Magnolia — a 4,000-square-foot lounge that's somehow hidden in a doughnut shop in the Flats — or the deceptively named Teacher's Lounge over at the Drury, Fresh Water contributor Billy Hallal has rounded up five all but hidden haunts amid Cleveland's insider cocktail scene.

The Speakeasy at Quintana’s
2200 S Taylor Rd., Cleveland Hts.

Like all bars worthy of the name, gaining entrance to The Speakeasy at Quintana’s is a process. Head to the backdoor of the 1920s colonial that plays home to Quintana's Barber, press the buzzer, and tell them you’re there to see a man about a horse (Sorry, Mr. Ed, we were just kidding about the horse). Head up the stairs to the bookcase and select the right book to buzz — don't worry, you’ll find it. Inside is a handsome, intimate space with leather seats, dark wood, and nattily dressed bartenders serving strong drinks. The room wasn’t always a speakeasy. In a previous life, it hosted the Dream Spa that’s now next door —but now you'll find the space is home to some of the best cocktails in the city. The talented bar staff has crafted a drink menu half from lesser-known, pre-Prohibition drinks (like the flirty 'Kiss the Boys Goodbye') and half from new twists on the classics (try the smoky Old Fashioned riff 'Black Powder').

“I don’t like reinventing the wheel,” says manager Kevin Patrick. “I just like making good wheels.”

The Foundation Room at House of Blues
308 Euclid Ave, Cleveland

Just to get this out of the way: the House of Blues is not unique to Cleveland, nor is the bar hidden away on its upper floors. That said, a visit to the Foundation Room at House of Blues is an experience that should go on any Clevelander’s East 4th Street bars/bucket list. Management describes The Foundation Room as “a VIP club with membership benefits” that include upfront views to HoB’s surprisingly intimate stage. For the general Clevelander, however, the Room may open itself to those who ask nicely to see it. Accessed via a ride in a tiny elevator and a walk through a dark hallway — just entering The Foundation Room is a completely immersive experience. When you step into its interior, you'll find that few bars in the city have such lavish attention to detail. The walls and ceilings are covered entirely with tapestries and folk art in an Indian and Southeast Asian style. The woodworking over the bar is exquisitely ornate. Touches like statues, great bar food, and a somehow-not-out-of-place mural of old Euclid Ave make The Foundation Room a complete Cleveland rock star experience.

The Duck Island Club
2102 Freeman Ave., Cleveland

This neighborhood bar is not located on an island, and it plays home to few, if any, ducks. But Duck Island has quite a history to it. The Duck Island Club boasts an exceptional draught beer selection, a nice patio, and a sometimes-active dance floor. The nationally famous Velvet Tango Room is right down the street, and given that Duck Island looks just like the houses surrounding it, the bar is easy to miss. Perhaps that’s why, as the story goes, it started its life as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The neighborhood that lends the bar its name is a tiny little no-man’s land between Ohio City and Tremont that once served as an easy spot for bootleggers to “duck” the law — hence, the name. Though not a literal island, Duck Island has been cut off from its Near West Side neighbors by torn-down bridges and a somewhat isolationist culture for decades. Redevelopment has begun in the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of debate as to whether it’s a good thing for the residents.

We recommend you go see it for yourself — and make the Club a part of your visit.

Tony’s Southside
2193 Professor Ave., Cleveland

There’s that scene in Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining where Jack Nicholson suddenly finds himself transported through time to an opulent Roaring 20s bar. It’s fair to say that stepping into Tony’s Southside is a somewhat comparable experience: utterly transporting (minus the suggestions of homicide, of course). The interior is seductively dark, even in broad daylight. The dark-stained wood, chandeliers, and elegant jazz soundtrack call to mind a golden age Hollywood haunt. The kitchen serves pasta with sauce locals rave over and delicately formed personal pizzas. The cocktails are strong, frequently rotating, and generously poured. Tony’s is a cash-only establishment, a literal mom-and-pop shop that’s been open since the 1980s. It’s extravagant but also tiny, seating barely a dozen at the bar. Don’t be surprised if when you walk in, the whole bar knows each other. Don’t disrupt the atmosphere and you’ll be welcomed too. It’s only open Fridays and Saturdays, so plan accordingly. Reservations are your safest bet.

The Whiskey Bar at Cafe Bon Appetit
2767 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Hts.

Last year, the proprietors of Mediterranean-influenced Cafe Bon Appetit decided to open up a bar in the basement of its Coventry location. Already, it’s raising the bar for class in the neighborhood's resident drinking holes. The Whiskey Bar, as the name suggests, eschews beer and wine to serve only the brown stuff. Reached by a staircase in the restaurant (or, after hours, an entrance in the former Centrum Theatre lobby), the space is low-lit and elegant. The intimate seating arrangements and decor call to mind a Parisian cafe, but the bluesy, jazzy soundtrack is distinctly American. The space seats sixteen at a time but can accommodate up to thirty for the live — and strictly acoustic — weekend performances. The whiskey selection is formidable. After launching with 50 from which to choose last August, they’re already up to 250, and looking to add 200 more by the end of the year.

Sampling 450 whiskies? Now that's a monumental goal.

Billy Hallal
Billy Hallal

About the Author: Billy Hallal

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.