The given address goes to a Steampunk cafe specializing in games and coffee–another novelty era ripe for nostalgic yearning but not the one we were looking for. Where the hell is this place? The first time I had visited Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, Minnesota I was accompanied by a friend who was already privy to the location. Half the appeal of a secret speakeasy hidden away in a niche part of town already known for it’s fanciful coffee-shops, coin operated video game arcade clubs, and ‘hot yoga’–is that it’s a destination prided on the fact that you kind of already need to know where you’re going. Like being a member of an Eyes Wide Shut sexy, Eleusinian Mysteries kind of cult meeting or a pirate marauding around the Caribbean looking for the Isla De Muerta–an island that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Being ‘in the know’ about Volstead’s Emporium adds a lot to its notoriety. Going to their website offers no assistance–there is no address, no online menu, no pictures or an extensive proselytizing ‘About’ page. It’s tough to know this place even exists, or what it is, unless you become one of the initiated via word of mouth.
We were driving around Uptown one evening where, during a traffic stop, I recognized the location we were at–and that down that seedy, familiar-looking alleyway nestled behind the Steampunk cafe was the secret speakeasy I had wanted to take my boyfriend to for ages. It felt like a re-discovery and I hastily tried to remember where it was for next time, when we would plan our visit and get to transport ourselves to a faux, 1920’s era den of libations.
For those who need a quick History lesson to refresh–the Temperance movement in the United States won a political victory from 1920-1933 when the entire country went “dry”. Meaning, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was banned. To enforce this draconian rule, the government passed the Volstead Act (Where our friendly Emporium likely took its name from) which went a step further in defining the intoxicating substances that were banned and the punishments that came with breaking these laws. The rise of bootlegging, gangsters, and speakeasies–secret law-breaking establishments selling banned booze–became a direct consequence and the 1920’s is forever remembered with these associations.
Unfortunately, memory is only as good as it is served. Turns out, when the summer construction is hazardous and the Happy Hour besought motorists are honking more persistently than a skein of geese, it can be a bit frustrating to try and remember a scattering of location markers after finally getting lucky finding a parking spot. Had I known that the large, neon gleaming sign for beer and bratwurst king New Bohemia resided across the street from our desired crime scene alleyway, our journey on empty stomachs might have been easier to bear. Once found, walking down said alleyway gives off an appropriate air of sleaziness, and as sweltering as the heat often gets in the summer, I was just thankful it wasn’t garbage from the line of dumpsters that marked our path. Hanging a left midway, there’s a smattering of apartment balconies claustrophobic-ly clustered together and in the small back of the building obstructed by vents, there resides a large bolted metal door with a creepy red serial killer light hanging above it. A most welcoming destination, if I ever saw one.“It’s all you, babe.”
I took this initiative with the fervent composure of a Flapper girl, who had likely already spent most of the evening dancing the Charleston to extinction, and rapped the door with my knuckles like I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. The slot in the door opens and a pair of eyes greets you–“Yes?”
“We have a reservation for two!”
The door is unbolted and we entered into a stairwell devoid of any identifying features aside from the bookie wearing a surprisingly dapper get-up. “Enjoy” is all he says as he goes back to manning the door. It’s up to us to take ourselves down the stairs and to the basement where we stand momentarily confused, there are at least three doors to choose from–not one of them marked with a sparkling Go Here to Drink sign to help us out. We could just make out the muffled sound of chatter and glass clinking enough to try Door Number 1–which ended up leading us into a time machine.
An oft overlooked aspect of any dining experience is the ability to transport a patron. This can happen with really good food–it’s much easier to feel like you’re on the coast of Sorrento enjoying a bowl of pasta in a white wine sauce when the spaghetti is al dente and the clams are cooked to perfection and you’re even given a shot of limoncello to chase it all down with. But atmosphere is just as important too and at Volstead’s–you do feel like you just stepped into a 1920’s speakasy which would make even the most classy of bathtub gin stirrers proud.
There are no windows and the establishment is dimly lit, there’s a piano and a jazz player in the back corner strumming soft melodies with the tempered line of the bartender shaking drinks. People are laughing uproariously all around, likely amplified by the low ceiling and general jovialness that comes with a really well mixed cocktail. It’s welcoming–and cuts the tension had while trying to find the place to begin with.
We were seated at a booth across from the parlor tables, draped with curtains we could easily pull for more privacy. It felt like we were only missing poker chips and the acrid smoke of cigars hanging in the air to set the mood into one in need of a police raid. For another brief moment, I felt like a femme fatale who was clandestinely meeting with a surly detective across from me, who was cloaked in a make-believe fedora and interrogating me on my whereabouts the night Tommy the Gun was murdered–all under the veneer of a heavy sepia filter. Or that was just the Old Fashioneds talking.
Volstead’s is a novelty experience, a way to feel like you’re in a piece of history for the night–surrounded by good drinks and food to boot. There’s a library room where you could sit and partake in a re-imagined game of Clue wearing monocles and dinner jackets, a large dial safe loitering under the stairs where surely the funds of nefarious mobster money ventures is well hidden, and there is even a telephone booth in the back by the restrooms for even the most ardent Doctor Who fan to enjoy. Voldstead’s is straight up cool so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
No one warned us about the framed mirror on the wall of our booth, that it would swing open and the waiter would grin as we jumped in surprise, serving as a portal in which to take our food and drink orders. I think the waitstaff probably finds most of their amusement in this gimmick–and it’s certainly a fun experience to team up with your waiter on. There is a buzzer under the mirror when you’re ready to order and there was at least one more incident where the frame creaked open like a horror movie prop with no waiter to be found, only for him to pop up into view a second later and ask what we’d like–to more jump scares from us. It’s hilarious.
Now all of this is fine and dandy, right? But the main attraction of any dining establishment is the food. And oh boy, does it not disappoint. The first time I went to Voldstead’s, I chose a guilt-free zucchini carbonara with added shrimp that was surprisingly complex and topped off the evening with warm, gooey bread pudding. This time, I went with the usual favorites my boy detective and I usually partake in at other restaurants–the first test for us being the charcuterie plate. I finally learned how to properly pronounce “charcuterie” when I embarrassingly ordered it incorrectly and my windowed waiter set me straight–not sure whether he was smirking at my inability to speak French or because I was recovering from another fun jump scare. Not to be a gerkin (no old fashioneds were consumed in the making of this dad joke), but I’m pretty easy to satisfy when it comes to charcuterie plates–the server had me at spicy salami, spec, and capicola. I was so excited I didn’t even pay attention to what the cheeses were.
Next, I ordered the most basic sounding ‘Steak & Potatoes’ which was anything but and I got it cooked a beautiful, medium-rare despite ordering it just medium, but hey–they were just looking out for me and my philistine steak preparation ordering ways. This is one of the better steaks I’ve eaten and I didn’t need to drop a $500 tab at Manny’s to enjoy it–this gorgeous hunk of meat is up there with the bavette I had at 112 Eatery and the steak I had at a (now closed) restaurant outside of New York City I had visited in high school that was apparently one of Elvis’ favorites.
Though any sane person would be full at this point and I was working on my second cocktail (Like Clockwork–Cognac, Bourbon, Dolin dry, Amaro Nonino, Orange Bitters, Expressed Orange–definitely got me all good and “bezoomny”!), a place can’t be sufficiently done and tried until you order a dessert and a regular, black coffee. Now, it should shock no one to know that I can be a bit of a pedant about certain things–and coffee is one of those things. I’ve worked in and out of the coffee industry for the better part of 8 years as a barista and on the corporate level slinging office work. It’s not particularly hard to find quality, well-sourced beans and it is even easier to brew them right. A restaurant can tell me a lot about how much they care about every aspect of their commitment to quality and food by how good their regular brewed coffee tastes. I’ve been disappointed in establishments that otherwise provide good meals but then serve up bitter, black water mudd that tastes like it had been sitting for more than 2 hours in back. I move from disappointed to irritated when this crime is committed by an authentically-declared French or Italian restaurant where ending your meal with a good coffee is tantamount to the cultural experience. One sip from Volstead’s chosen brew and I knew this place really was every bit as great as I knew it to be.
The tiramisu I ordered for dessert wasn’t bad either–and as your resident swarthy Italian-American, I’ve had plenty of tiramisu in my day. The only thing about it I found particular to note, was how the lady fingers weren’t soggy and absolutely drowning in booze and/or coffee. Unlike me this evening, of course.
So, dear reader, consider yourself well and in the know about Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, MN. I’ve now passed on the secret to you–and if you’re in the area or visiting the Twin Cities, I hope that you take a moment to stumble around W. Lake St. attempting to find it. But shhhhh–don’t tell your dinner companion(s) about the mirror window.