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"Speakeasy" open in downtown Lawrence; more on school boundaries near Rock Chalk Park
I think I’ve finally been to a speakeasy. I think. If you remember, we reported last month that paperwork had been filed for a new drinking establishment in the basement of 7 E. Seventh St. downtown, and we mentioned that the rumor was that the place was going to be a “speakeasy.”
It was just a rumor at that time because I checked and couldn’t find where the business filed an official speakeasy permit at City Hall (just an oversight, I’m sure), but now I can report that the speakeasy element is indeed true. I stumbled into the establishment recently. It is open. I think. As we previously reported, it is called John Brown Underground. I think. No, it's not the substance that I think was gin that is causing my confusion. It is the fact that the business has no signs, advertisements or anything else calling attention to its existence.
“It is not an exclusive club, but we’re definitely not advertising,” said Kate Brubacher, the bar’s manager. “We want it to be word of mouth. There is no sign out front and no plans for a sign out front.”
That makes sense. If there is one thing I’ve always said about John Brown, it is that he hated signs. No, that’s not it. A speakeasy, for those of you not familiar with the term, was a common phrase in the Prohibition era to describe an establishment that illegally sold alcohol, or whatever that substance was that was brewed in the bathtub. For those of you who sat in the back row in Kansas History class, let me clear up some confusion and say John Brown was not a Prohibition-era figure. He was a militant abolitionist, but the secretive theme does kind of apply to him. Smuggling slaves to freedom involved some hush-hush type of stuff. Plus, the bar is in a basement, so it kind of literally has an underground theme going. I could do further psychoanalysis on the name, but I think I’ll just let Brubacher try to explain the place.
“I think people are going to enjoy a completely different vibe than anywhere else in town,” Brubacher said. “It helps that we’re in a basement and we keep the lighting low. There will be lots of hospitality and no pretension. The idea is we wanted some place for the 30 and up crowd. Not a lot of screaming and pop music. We want to keep it kind of mellow.”
The establishment can seat 80, but there is twist to that as well. Forty of the seats are in a back room, whose entrance is cordoned off with a velvet rope. That room is available only by reservation or “invitation.”
In case you're still trying to picture where this establishment is, it's in the spot that formerly housed the Game Guy video game store. Because the location wasn’t already a bar, John Brown Underground has to meet the city regulation that at least 55 percent of its total sales come from food rather than alcohol. The city has that regulation to stop a proliferation of pure bar uses downtown.
At the moment, the business has a small menu including pretzels with mustard dipping sauce, a broccoli and cauliflower plate, a sack of nuts, a bratwurst meal and a burger meal. The establishment has a longer list of classic cocktails and some of them may require some explanation.
“We’re trying to get people reintroduced to some of those old-time drinks,” Brubacher said. “Maybe some of what their grandpa drank but they haven’t.”
The drink menu includes some easy ones to understand like a classic martini, a Rob Roy, and a Mint Julep. But there’s also something called a Pimm's Cup, which uses a British liquor similar to gin and is cucumber based. There’s also something called a Pisco Sour, a Sazerac, a French 75 and Prohibition Punch, which features gin and “barkeep secrets.” Perhaps you are in luck, though, and your grandpa drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, Hamm's or other such beer. Those and a few craft beers, plus some wine, also are stocked at the bar.
I’m not entirely sure of the ownership group of the new establishment. Lawrence developer Doug Compton owns the building and has been involved in the project. The city drinking establishment license lists Scott Elliott, a partner in The Summit health and fitness club at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, as an owner. (That might explain the broccoli and cauliflower plate.) But I haven’t been able to get in touch with him about the project.
UPDATE: I now have gotten in touch with Elliott, and he tells me he's opened the bar after having the idea for more than a year. He said he had seen some other speakeasy concepts open in other cities, and thinks patrons are searching for places that have a more mellow atmosphere and promote conversation and relaxation. Elliott said he and his staff will continue to make a few tweaks to the concept as they go. He said a small stage area will be used to host perhaps a jazz guitarist or horn player a few nights a week. He said the menu also will expand significantly in the coming days. But he doesn't plan on changing the strategy of making the place slightly difficult to find. "We had a couple of guys come in the other night who said they didn't really know where it was, but when they saw the front door, they figured they had to be in the right place," Elliott said. "That's what we want. We want people to experience that feeling of 'I've found it.'"
Brubacher said the business is open for lunch, has an afternoon happy hour and serves until 2 a.m. on many nights. But in traditional speakeasy fashion, the hours are subject to change.
In other news and notes from around town:
• An article I wrote a few days ago is still generating some conversation in Lawrence’s real estate community. It was about how as the city grows to the northwest, new development is exiting the Lawrence school district and entering the Perry-Lecompton school district. We’re talking in particular about the area near Rock Chalk Park, which is just north and east of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway interchange.
Perhaps you haven’t been out there for awhile, but there is new home construction underway in that area. A housing development called the Oregon Trail development will have a mix of single-family and townhomes, with about 100 units overall. I’ve gotten calls from people who are worried those new homes aren’t in the Lawrence school district, despite what they may have been led to believe by real estate agents. Well, don’t worry. Those homes are in the Lawrence school district. As I pointed out in the original article, it is the area immediately east of Rock Chalk Park — which is where the new apartment complex approved by the city last night will be — and the area north of Rock Chalk Park that is in the Perry-Lecompton school district. The Oregon Trail development is south of Rock Chalk Park and the apartment complex. But the boundary lines in the area are jagged, so it will be important for homebuyers to do their research in the area.
It will be interesting to watch how much pressure Lawrence school district officials get to rethink their position on not allowing a large number of students from that area to transfer into the district. Superintendent Rick Doll has said if that area develops, homeowners should expect to send their kids to Perry-Lecompton schools. It has become clear to me that there are several real estate officials in town who are concerned that the area north of Rock Chalk Park will be hard to develop if homebuyers are told that their kids can’t go to the nearby Lawrence schools.
One scenario is that the area north of Rock Chalk Park just doesn’t develop. But that could be problematic at City Hall. The city is spending $22.5 million on infrastructure in the area. That’s a sign that it wants the area to develop. If the area doesn’t develop, it could be particularly problematic to the city’s desire to get significant amounts of retail development in the area. One of the reasons retailers have given for not wanting to locate in that area is because the number of homes near the intersection isn’t yet great. The area north of Rock Chalk could accommodate hundreds of homes, but only if you can sell them to people who want their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district.
All this may end up being overblown. There may be a lot of people who will want to their kids to go to the Perry-Lecompton school district once they learn of the benefits of a smaller school and the door-to-door busing service the district will offer students. Either way, it seems like the area is ripe for an education campaign, a political campaign, or both.