The Northeast speakeasy serves cocktails, Italian cuisine in a style from yesteryear
There are secretive bars. Then there are speakeasies. Then there’s Al’s Place.
There is no shortage of Twin Cities bars inspired by Prohibition and the bootleggers of last century, but the bar built out on top of Stanley’s NE Bar Room is more of a living, breathing testament to the era.
The fact that there are so many modern speakeasies is exactly why Steve Benowitz, David Benowitz, and Luke Derheim, CEO, COO and operations director of Craft & Crew Hospitality, respectively, decided to go all out on the concept.
“We want to blow you away when you come in the door. From the staff interaction to the entertainment to the people in character, everything is an experience,” said Derheim, who also is a co-owner of Al’s.
The Al’s experience starts with finding the door. There are two: Find the green light on the outside of the building at Lowry & University for a direct entrance, or go through the ground-floor restaurant.
“You hop in the photo booth, you close the curtain and then you knock on the other side. Then you disappear from Stanley’s,” Derheim said.
Diners are greeted by a doorman who will go over the ground rules and then a maître d’ in full 1920s attire. Walk through the fog and find a table, belly up to the bar or reserve the best seat in the 75-seat restaurant, a large booth known as Al’s table.
The name is a throwback to the building, which in the 1940s was known as Al’s Place. But in 2017, the second story has been taken over by one of the most famous bootleggers of them all, Al Capone.
The bar, a former private dining and event space, has been completely redone with big changes like new wood floors and new walls and small touches like plaster-like details on the walls and Parisian-style wallpaper in the bathrooms. When customers need service or another drink they can push a light switch to signal staff.
“We touched every surface,” David Benowitz said.
The concept features a classic Italian menu with sections for antipasto, savory crepes, salads and entrees like the popular pot roast served over parmesan risotto or the linguini with walnut sauce, Capone’s favorite. For dessert, there is pie, butterscotch budino or the Campbell’s tomato soup cake, which Derheim said tastes more like a pumpkin spice cake.
Craft & Crew brought on Jon “Sunshine” Robinson to lead the bar. Robinson, who worked at bar programs at Coup d’état and Lou Nanne’s Steakhouse, was previously at the bar downstairs.
The cocktail program is far different from Stanley’s or Craft & Crew’s other neighborhood-focused restaurants and sports bars. Robinson and the bartenders make their own ice, syrups and bitters to support the menu of signature drinks, all unique takes on classic drinks.
Each drink gets its own piece of furniture as a nod toward Capone, whose first “front” was a furniture store, so the check won’t come back with cocktail names on it. The ottoman or house old fashioned ($11) combines the butterscotch and caramel notes of Knob Creek bourbon with apple brandy from Laird & Company — the oldest licensed distillery in the country — demerara syrup and an original blend of bitters.
Mocktails are showing up on drink menus throughout the city, but they have a historical precedent in the time of Prohibition. Four $5 mocktails that are based on cocktails are available at Al’s. There’s the Orange Elegance — Robinson describes it as a sexier, non-alcoholic version of a madras — and the egg-white lemonade, which, beyond being the favorite beverage of Robinson’s daughter, was a popular drink in the 1920s, he said.
Al’s serves an added experience with a captain’s list, a small menu of $35 cocktails that are more complex, are made at the table and come with a side of history — even fire. This isn’t the drink program at Stanley’s, the founders stressed.
“This cocktail program is so widely different from what we’ve done in any of the other stores or downstairs,” Derheim said.
Al’s has lounge music on Friday and Saturday nights from 8:30 p.m.–11:30 p.m. — though those hours may change over time — courtesy of Mia Dorr, a veteran of the Twin Cities music scene for the past two decades. A cocktail hour from 5 p.m.–7 p.m. comes with $10 off the captain’s list, $1 jumbo shrimp and deals on wine, beer and cocktails.
Benowitz said in its first month, the experience-driven approach and the depth of the concept at Al’s have been well received.
“I want to be different. I want to do something new. I want to set the bar. I don’t like to copy anyone. So, if we can be that trendsetter for the community, that’s what I’m striving for,” he said.
Al’s Place is open 5 p.m.–1 a.m. Thursday, 5 p.m.–2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m.–midnight Sunday at 2500 University Ave. NE.