As hard as it is to believe now, a small group of extremists once managed to take over the United States government. Their goal was simple: make everyone stop drinking liquor. Prohibition lasted from 1920 to 1933, and during that time, no American who really wanted a drink went without one. For example, Benson resident Katherine Warner was arrested in 1922 while storing large amounts of homemade gin and whiskey for local consumption, as well as counterfeit labels. In many cases, people just paid a little more—and made a lot of criminals wealthy. One of the more memorable ways to have a night out was to go to a technically illegal nightclub known as a speak-easy. Omaha had a few “speaks,” most notably the third floor of King Fong’s, but the romanticized ideal was barely necessary. Ask any Omaha bellboy or cabbie where to get booze, and they would set you right in short order. Today, speak-easies make for a nice theme. But the legal context is vastly different. (Joslyn Castle even has a sold-out speak-easy series running from January through April on the third Thursday of every month.) Here are a few bars and clubs fitting a loose contemporary definition of “speak-easies.”
1508 Harney St.
Frequently referred to as one of Omaha’s hidden gems, Wicked Rabbit is the archetypical, modern speak-easy and was dubbed “Omaha’s intimate speak-easy” by the Omaha Visitors Center. They serve creative, delicious Prohibition-era cocktails with a speak-easy feel and a semi-secret entrance. Just go through the Looking Glass Cigars & Spirits, tell the clerk the secret passphrase, and you’re in. Check out their Facebook page for details because they have no website.
3910 Farnam St., Suite B
Osteria Segreto means “secret tavern” and that’s a great description for a bar “hidden” beneath Blackstone Social where one can ask for directions to the basement entrance. Be sure to also ask what the secret knock is. The Osteria Segreto website is notably lacking information. Good luck making a reservation as no telephone number is listed. It’s romantically lit, as discreetly located as any Blackstone District business can be, and it positively oozes quality.
1715 Leavenworth St.
If you don’t know the Mineshaft, you are not alone. The Mineshaft is located in the basement of The Omaha Mining Co. behind a locked door. It is the bar’s sanctum sanctorum and not for everyday use. The Mineshaft is a special events/party room today, but in the past, when alcohol was not the only thing served on the down-low, places like this allowed gay men a room of their own and a quick escape out the back when raided. The Mineshaft has an air of mystique. It resembles nothing so much as a ’60s-era rumpus room decorated with homoerotic art perfect for gear night, club meetings, socials, or just hanging with the fellas.
6109 Maple St.
There is charm in discovering something off the beaten path. Located in the basement of Ika Ramen in Benson is an izakaya called Kaitei. An izakaya is a small, casual, signage-averse, Japanese-style pub. It is entirely possible to eat at Ika and never realize there is a bar in the basement behind a nondescript door in the dining room. Kaitei is always in flux and embraces the risqué, according to owner Alex Diimig. Diimig says he is not fond of the term “speak-easy,” but he does like the semi-secrecy and sense of adventure Kaitei evokes. It’s not off limits, just not advertised. It is far enough off the road most taken to add a sense of mystery to your evening. Weird people welcome.
Down Under Lounge
3530 Leavenworth St.
Down Under Lounge recently moved from its location near 38th and Leavenworth streets. Its basement speak-easy is equipped with a grand piano and a door to nowhere. It also brings a bit of history in the form of half the bar from the old location. Yes, it was cut in half from the old Down Under Lounge, and now resides in its new underground home. This speak-softly lounge is currently open for special occasions, shows, and their DU fondue parties.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.