Photo by Chris Casella

Keep It Hid

Have you heard about Columbus’s Secret Speakeasy?

These new-age bootleggers embrace the playfulness of the concept, seeking seriousness only in the classic cocktails.
Down the stairs of an historic building in Olde Worthington sits a sub rosa gem, hidden under cover of the late-dinner-hour clatter from the unknowing diners above. Muffled conversation and brassy music seep into the underground hallway, and just past the stained glass door a bouncer welcomes guests inside.

Welcome to Ezra’s Speakeasy, the city’s unlisted, invitation-only, hush-hush tavern.

But unlike a true Prohibition-era joint, they don’t speak so easy in here – booze is legal now. Patrons mingle in the quaint, wood-lined room, conversing in more-than-whispered tones and laughing openly, accompanied by upbeat jazz. The doorman, Donnie Austin, and the bartender, Cris Dehlavi, are doing nothing to quell the din. They invited two journalists, after all, which is among the sillier ways of keeping a secret. These new-age bootleggers embrace the playfulness of the concept, seeking seriousness only in the classic cocktails.

Ezra’s Speakeasy – named for Ezra Griswold, Worthington’s first tavern owner – is in its second month of operation, and also its second night. The bar opens once a month in a private cellar room somewhere in the historic downtown district, and co-proprietors Austin (owner of House Wine) and Dehlavi (bartender extraordinaire, of everywhere) hold two consecutive two-hour sessions, each one for 20 selected invitees. A one-night membership costs $30 per person with one guest.

The membership buys entry and access to a menu of four concoctions. There’s no point in mentioning names because they get scratched each time in favor of a new set. Dehlavi says the trouble isn’t coming up with original mixes; it’s choosing four from the 250 ideas tumbling through her head. She pours a sweet bourbon drink (all booze but the orange rind, she claims), and no sooner is that one gone than a couple at the marble-top bar begins singing the praises of her tequila-jalapeno cocktail.

The place is muggy and warm tonight – to make it feel authentic, Austin says while laughing – like drinking inside a summer raincloud. None of the other patrons complains much, just content to sip their drinks on the leather couches or at the candlelit, white-draped tables. The bar has about run dry by 10, and the guests retreat up the stairs to the square world above.

Out in the darkened weeknight streets of Olde Worthington, no one’s the wiser. •

Want to try your luck getting an invite to the speakeasy?