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What's old is new again: An inside look at Kansas City's speakeasy revival

Posted at 5:35 AM, Jul 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-23 08:17:00-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What's old is new again. Prohibition-era, speakeasy-style bars have planted their stakes across Kansas City.

Originally designed to skirt the laws of prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, today’s bars exist in an age where alcohol is legal. Bar managers said exclusivity, ambiance, carefully crafted drinks, and attentive staff draw customers to the experience. 

“Manifesto is a friendly, neighborhood, subterranean speakeasy,” General Manager Jay Sanders said. 

Manifesto is a bar in the basement of the Rieger Hotel on Main Street. Most people credit it as the first speakeasy to set up in the modern age. 

“Drinking culture and food culture, much like fashion, is very cyclical,” Sanders said. “There's something very uniquely American about speakeasies. When you look back to our heritage, I think it is a wonderful part of the culture.”

Speakeasies have an unignorable connection to Kansas City’s culture. Big names like Tom Pendergast kept the alcohol flowing through Kansas City during prohibition. 

He said now that prohibition is over, it's hard to define a speakeasy. Most in Kansas City don’t require a password to get inside, some require reservations, some only allow a limited amount of people inside on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Speakeasies in the Kansas City area:

“I think it's a culture. It is an aesthetic, definitely. Low lights definitely help,” Sanders pointed out. 

Other managers like Jill Cockson of Swordfish Tom’s said the idea isn’t to hide from the public like the old days. 

“We're not making an overt attempt to stay hidden by any means, but I also do obviously realize we're borrowing from some of the motifs people associate with speakeasies,” Cockson said. “We have an underground setting, there is some exclusivity to it based on the number of people we let in, but everyone is welcome.”

Cockson said the relative cheap overhead costs in the Midwest and Kansas City's history make it the perfect spot for a speakeasy revival. 

“The fact Kansas City never went through prohibition, and that is such a unique part of our history, I think it's something people identify with as being uniquely Kansas City,” Cockson said. 

What most speakeasies have in common today is an intense focus on the quality of the drinks they serve. 

“The culture shifted where people started to care more about the food and drink they put in their bodies,” Sanders said. “With the spiritual renaissance of all the new distilleries opening, I think it opened a lot more possibilities for people who were tired of drinking cosmopolitans in the 90s and wanted something a little better.”