On the main floor of the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy, you'll find the trendiest of dining options: the gastropub. But down in the basement is a feature that recalls an earlier epoch: a jazz-era speakeasy.
"This building has a pretty mad history," says co-owner Adam Johnston, who took over the North Side location in December. Johnston confirms that the basement was, in fact, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, with remnants of a secret tunnel once used to smuggle booze. (The restaurant's walk-in refrigerators are located there today.)
The building was constructed in the 1850s, and Prohibition wasn't the only shadowy chapter of its history. Johnston says that "the banquet room at one point about 100 years ago was a brothel"; the fourth floor, meanwhile, housed a movie theater that once screened Socialist films.
It was jazz, however, that really left its mark here. The building previously housed the James Street Tavern, a premier local jazz venue until its 2005 closing. Johnston has brought the jazz tradition back; the Pittsburgh Jazz Society plays at the speakeasy every Sunday, and other jazz and blues acts perform on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
In keeping with that legacy, Johnston will introduce a list of "Speakeasy Cocktails" this week. There are the usual standards associated with the jazz era — side car, Tom Collins, gin fizz — but what really stand out are the Pittsburgh-based originals.
The Kate Hester (a mix of rum, Cointreau, grenadine and soda) is named for the legendary McKeesport tavern owner widely credited with coining the term "speakeasy." Drinks are also named after historic Pittsburgh jazz clubs: the Pink Cloud, a blend of muddled strawberries, vodka, grapefruit juice, soda water and white zinfandel; the Encore, a mix of vodka, sweet vermouth, fresh orange juice, Grand Marnier and bitters; and the Pitt Pot, a cocktail of dark rum, coffee liqueur, lime juice, pineapple juice and a splash of cola.
"That's what works here," says Johnston.