During the dry days of Prohibition, those who wanted to consume alcoholic beverages had to seek out backstreet speakeasies, illegal saloons often masquerading as cafés or entertainment venues, cached in subterranean spaces. The name referred to the need to whisper, or “speak easy.” To gain entrance, one had to know the secret knock or password.
Recalling those intriguing gin joints, Chef Joe Clarke and his wife Darlene, owners of American Grocery Restaurant (AGR), will soon open their own spin on a speakeasy. They call it Vault & Vator, for the old vault and elevator in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Dr. Pepper bottling facility on South Main Street, where the bar resides.
The concept harks back to pre-Prohibition days, aka the Golden Age of Cocktails, with décor inspired by twentieth-century Paris. “We’re creating a cozy, comfortable place where people can sip and enjoy cocktails, based on the way people drank before Prohibition,” explains AGR’s bar manager Kirk Ingram, who is the head mixologist on tap at the new bar.
“But there will be house rules,” cautions Darlene: “No shots, no Fireballs, no Cosmopolitans, and no standing at the bar.” The maximum capacity for the new space is 45 people. Ingram describes the cocktail menu as “seasonal and ambitious,” with classic pours like the Aviation, the Corpse Reviver, and the Last Word, as well as riffs on other well-known libations. “I use what I call a Mr. Potato Head concept,” Ingram quips. “As long as you replace a nose with a nose and an eyeball with an eyeball, you’re limited only by your imagination.”
He refers to his collection of pre-Prohibition cocktail guides to help him whip up something you won’t see elsewhere in the area: colonial-era punch service for tables of four or more. Behind the bar will be lines of house-made bitters, shrubs, and tinctures. And you’ll find no soda gun here—tonics are likewise crafted on-site. If you must, there is a small selection of wine and craft beer, but cocktails rule the day.
Regulars may favor “bartender’s choice,” the rough equivalent of a chef’s tasting, where Ingram concocts a quaff to suit an individual’s taste. “If I can talk to a customer, within 30 seconds I can nail their flavor profile,” he claims.
Vault & Vator sweats the details, from different shapes of ice to various antique glasses to designing the bar so Ingram never has to turn his back on his customers. There is also a modest snack menu, based heavily on charcuterie and cheese.
“We’re creating an experience,” states Ingram, who is excited to play in what Joe and Darlene call his “new sandbox.” “We want people to experience something unique from the moment they step into the space to their first sip of a cocktail.”
No doubt they will. The entrance hides behind the building next to The Cook’s Station. Once inside, the velvet-veiled vestibule prevents peeking into the bar, initially shrouding the space in mystery. No password or secret knock required.
Vault & Vator, 655 S. Main St, Greenville. vaultandvator.com