Downtown's Omni William Penn hotel revisits its Prohibition past | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Downtown's Omni William Penn hotel revisits its Prohibition past

The cocktail menu leans heavily on classic pre-Prohibition cocktails


Pittsburgh drinkers have a long history of defying the prevailing liquor authorities. 

In the late 1800s, McKeesport barkeep Kate Hester coined the term "speakeasy" long before it became synonymous with Prohibition drinking dens: She told a boisterous crowd to "Speak easy, boys," so lawmen wouldn't be drawn to her unlicensed saloon.

And at Prohibition's height, according to local legend, Pittsburgh had more than 50 speakeasies in the Golden Triangle alone. While the locations of many of those taverns are forever forgotten, one was housed in the historic William Penn Hotel. 

"We have a very rich history here," says Bob Page, director of marketing and sales for Omni William Penn. To celebrate that history, the hotel has restored the old drinking den, which for years was used as a storage room, to its past glory. 

"We thought it would be really neat, because of the history of the hotel, to bring this outlet back," says Page, who notes that the space needed to undergo a heavy refurbishment after years of neglect. 

Although constructed of modern-day material (augmented by original period accents), the room, simply named Speakeasy, looks as if it belongs to the bygone era of Guys and Dolls. In a nice touch of living history, Pittsburgh Seltzer is spritzed from bottles originally created for the old bar at the hotel.

The cocktail menu, designed by Chicago's Adam Seger and masterfully executed by bartender Dawn Young, leans heavily on classic pre-Prohibition cocktails like the Old Fashioned, Rob Roy and Manhattan, plus a collection of Collins, flips, and sours.

"I've been doing this a long time" — 20 years, in fact — "but this is a whole new level of bartending," says Young.

This "speakeasy" isn't terribly secret: It's fully licensed by the PLCB, and no password is required for entry. Hours are limited, however — it's open Thursday through Saturday evenings. And, just in case you're worried about the fuzz busting the joint, the right-hand door on the far wall used to be the escape to the street.

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