Above Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room quietly sits an authentic speakeasy named for one of the 20th century’s most notorious gangsters, Al Capone. True to this theme, Al’s goes beyond the modern Prohibition-style bar to transport visitors to another time and place, a full-on secret that we are hesitant to let out of the bag.
Access Al’s Place via what was the entrance to Stanley’s event space: a nondescript door with a green light. Visitors may also enter the photo booth inside the main-floor bar to be escorted inside. The doorman is friendly and wears something very near to a zoot suit. He goes over the house rules. Period-specific attire is encouraged but is by no means required. Immediately, this experience is unlike other speakeasies — in contrast to the secret door and bouncer at Volstead’s Emporium in LynLake, or Marvel Bar in the North Loop during peak hours, the greeting at Al’s adds charm and personality rather than exclusivity.
A smoke machine makes the stairway feel like part of a misguided high school play, however, when we reach the second floor, its purpose becomes clear; it fills the the 75-seat dining room and bar with an odorless haze reminiscent of tobacco, setting an irreplicable tone.
Stick with the bar for the full experience, especially for a first visit. The banter and guidance of the bartenders, with nicknames like Sunshine and Mad Dog, enhances the mood. The staff does an excellent job, offering personalized service and remaining comfortably in character, all while poking fun at themselves, the luxurious “indoor plumbing,” and ice “straight off the lake.”
Bar manager Jon “Sunshine” Robinson formerly worked downstairs at Stanley’s as well as at a few other notable Twin Cities bars. He is the clear ringleader of the bar team, and he’s happy to report that Al’s has already fostered a few regulars. Cocktails are named after furniture to allow guests to avoid using incriminating words and to blend in with the teetotaling tendencies of the time. Capone’s first front was a furniture business.
For a sweeter sip, opt for the Sofa Strawberry Sour ($11), which is a layered combination of shaken egg white, Copper & Kings brandy, lemon, and maraschino floating atop a viscous strawberry syrup. Resist the urge to stir the duo and you’ll get a tiny portion of the syrup with each sip. The strong berry flavor, which is intensified by the aroma of the fresh strawberry on the rim, is like strawberry candy. It conceals the potency of the brandy and creates a simple profile. An addition of complexity would be much appreciated in this one, perhaps to draw out the nuttiness or tannins of the maraschino.
When it comes to complexity, the Floating Shelf French 75 ($9) is the most successful version of this classic in recent memory. The dry and tart Avissi prosecco draws the lemon-oil aroma and flavor to the forefront, intensifying the fruit’s sour nature with carbonation. A faint, intriguing cinnamon-bark note lingers due to the addition of Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters.
The Davenport Double Standard ($9), made with Redemption rye, Old Tom gin, lime, and raspberry, was a favorite in our sizable group. In fact, it was the biggest hit of the night. The berry is most noticeable in the drink’s pale pink color; its flavor is subtle. The combination of rye and gin is seldom seen, and at first it sounded like they could clash. To our surprise, the spice of the rye united with the botanical profile of the gin.
Finally, in what could provide all the gentle embarrassment of a sparkling, volcanic birthday dessert, the Captain’s List of the most special drinks around ($35 each, $25 during happy hour) will bring a server tableside for a flourishing display of cocktail prowess. These “cart cocktails,” as they are nicknamed, are created on a wheeled bar cart à la tableside Caesar salad. But more than a gimmick, each of the five choices features an exclusive spirit, and each ingredient and mixing process is explained as the drink is prepared.
The Sazerac, for instance, contains Copper & Kings Butchertown brandy, a blend of 75 percent bourbon-barrel-aged and 25 percent American-oak-aged spirits. A house-made honey-orange-tobacco syrup complements the wood and stone-fruit notes in the spirit. Our server explained the origin of the Peychaud bitters in the drink: They were named for an immigrant from Haiti who settled in New Orleans and brought his signature tincture, which became the celebrated cocktail ingredient. The lowball glass glows blue with flaming absinthe while the other elements are combined. The final product has a heavy anise and orange-blossom-honey flavor, with mild pipe tobacco and smoked wood on the finish.
A full dinner menu is available, and most of it draws inspiration from the Prohibition Era. We enjoyed the Shrimp Cocktail ($1 per shrimp at happy hour) for a light bite. The shrimp are perfectly poached, creating a silky texture that’s unexpected and refined. For a total throwback, try the Clams Casino ($9), a small breaded and baked dish of clams and cheese served with crostini. If you’re craving an adventurous sweet finish, Al’s serves a Spice Cake made with Campbell’s tomato soup that screams Depression Era but tastes like carrot cake.
Maitre d’ and general manager Kelli Holloway was the visionary behind Al’s. The idea came to her during her fifth year working at Stanley’s, when she saw an old brick laid into the building engraved with “Al’s Place – 1949.” “Our mission is to literally bring each guest on a magical roller coaster ride back in time,” Holloway says. “Everything you experience was available in the 20s and 30s. The menu, the drinks, the food, the music.”
As far as secrecy goes, Robinson says he is ready for more exposure, noting that his dutiful bar staff has kept their roles so quiet that friends and family are beginning to think they work for the FBI. They’ve experienced most of their traffic by word of mouth.
Finally, if you’re greeted with an eye of suspicion at the secluded entrance, simply utter the name of a piece of furniture to the face behind the doorknocker. But don’t tell them we sent you.
Al’s Place, 2500 University Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418; 612.788.2529. Thu 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun 5 p.m.-midnight.