Betty Lou’s Library. Photo: Jared Sych

Modern speakeasies put a secretive and stylish spin on the cocktail bar

The rules are simple: Acquire the weekly password. Head to Salt & Brick and ask for Charlie. Give the correct password. Enter quietly, with the elegance of a silent film actor.  

You’ve now arrived at one of Calgary’s hidden speakeasy-style cocktail hotspots. This one hides under the guise of a 1930s watch repair shop tucked within the confines of the intimate Salt & Brick. (Hint: You can find the top-secret words of passage on Charlie’s Watch Repair’s Instagram stories every Tuesday.) 

It used to be that you had to visit New York or Chicago to find a true speakeasy, but the pseudo-
secretive and uber-classy cocktail scene has exploded in Calgary over the last eight or nine years as the city’s nightlife options have become ever-more elevated.  

The pseudo- secretive and uber-classy cocktail scene has exploded in Calgary over the last eight or nine years

There are about a dozen speakeasy spots in the city now and a handful more that could be in the conversation depending on your definition, says Sarah Hovind, the savvy influencer behind the Sarah Sociables Instagram account. For most, speakeasies are defined as being in hidden or hard to find locations that are kept a bit under wraps, some to the extent of needing a password to gain entry. 

Hovind discovered her love for the classy prohibition-themed cocktail bars while visiting New York City with friends a decade ago.  

“They were exploding in New York where there were all these cool speakeasies everywhere and we went to as many as we could because it was the coolest thing,” Hovind says. She started noticing speakeasies pop up in Calgary in 2015 and 2016, when elevated cocktail bars such as Proof and Milk Tiger burst onto the scene. 

In 2016, Betty Lou’s Library classed Calgary up even more, inviting patrons to enter through a hidden door that transports them into a 1920s America-themed library that also features burlesque entertainment and jazz nights.  

“I think they were really successful and that’s why the trend just grew in Calgary,” says Hovind. “People are really into them. They love the atmosphere. It’s something unique and that makes Calgary in the same league as these big cities like New York or Chicago where this trend kind of started.”

Most of the city’s speakeasy lounges call back to the American prohibition era from 1920 to 1933 when drinking establishments had to be hidden within legitimate businesses because the United States banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.

Some add their own twist on the theme, such as Shelter’s war-time bomb shelter theme or Cannibale, which is not only 1930s barber shop-themed but also boasts a fully functioning barber shop. The super-secret Graybar is unique in that it doesn’t charge or make a profit but rather takes donations for Inn from the Cold.   

“I think the different themes are what attract people to them, and I think that’s what gets tourists excited about visiting, too,” Hovind says. 

Many also require a password, which might require some research before your night out but adds to the experience as does how hidden or secretive the locations are. Pro tip: check the businesses websites and social media accounts before heading out since many of them require a secret code and reservation. And shhhh, don’t share your password.  

“They each have their own unique take, which is reflected in both the decor and the drinks or sometimes in how you enter it or with the password,” says Hovind. “I like when they are a little hard to find, I think it adds to the experience.”

Hovind has been to most of the city’s speakeasies at least once and has a few favourites, including downtown’s hard-to-find tropical Vietnamese-inspired Paper Lantern and Marda Loop’s recently opened La Hacienda. 

“I think La Hacienda is really cool because it’s tequila-themed. It’s kind of down little hidden staircase and there’s a phone booth you use to call in and use your password,” Hovind says.

Calgary’s speakeasy- style cocktail bars 

Ajito 

7212 Macleod Trail SE, ajito.ca 

Betty Lou’s Library 

Inside the Devenish Building, 908 17 Ave. SW, bettylouslibrary.com 

Business & Pleasure

1327a 9 Ave SE, itsbusinessandpleasure.com

Cannibale 

813 1 Ave NE, cannibale.ca 

Charlie’s Watch Repair in Salt & Brick 

211 10 Ave SW,
charlieswatchrepair.com 

Graybar 

104 18 Ave SE , graybaryyc.com 

La Hacienda 

1928 34 Ave SW, lahaciendayyc.ca

Paper Lantern 

Basement of 115 2 Ave SE, paperlantern.ca 

Prickett Richard below Comery Block 

1B 638 17 Ave. SW, prickettrichard.com 

Prohibition Lounge

720 17 Ave SW, prohibitionloungeyyc.com  

Shelter 

1210 1 St SW, shelteryyc.com