I'll Bite

What’s with all the Charlotte speakeasys?

Take your pick: Cocktails for the media preview were the Bee’s Knees and the Hanky Panky.
Take your pick: Cocktails for the media preview were the Bee’s Knees and the Hanky Panky. Kathleen Purvis

You’d think the Volstead Act is about to return any minute, what with all the “hidden rooms” and speakeasy cocktail themes popping up around Charlotte right now. The Cellar at Duckworth is preparing special drinks to celebrate the Dec. 5 anniversary of repeal of Prohibition (more on that later) and several places around town have added secret-room bars.

On Wednesday night, the Marriott City Center became the latest to go all cops-and-hooch on us.

A couple of dozen media types got an invitation from the Marriott that only instructed us to show up at the hotel’s loading dock, on Church Street around the corner from the Trade Street hotel entrance, across from First Presbyterian Church. When I got there, there were the usual things you’d expect at a loading dock: Big containers of garbage, a lingering smell of air freshener, a couple of oak barrels with candles on them, and a grafitti-style sign saying The Dock.

You had to knock at the back door, where a costumed actor dressed kind of like a blackjack dealer with a very bad handlebar moustache ushered you into the dish room for Stoke, the hotel restaurant, and then into a back room with dark lighting where a bartender working at a rustic wood table was making two gin cocktails, the Bee’s Knees and the Hanky Panky.

Talib McDowell, director of “guest experiences” (yes, that’s a real title), and Sean Potter, director of “eating and drinking” (yes, again) explained what’s up: The small room behind the kitchen, which used to be an employee cafeteria, is now ready for whatever you want it to be. Decorated with reclaimed wood by Gerard Walker of Artistic Reclaimed Designs, the space is available for rent most of the time, and they can shape it however you want. Think unusual lunch or dinner meetings, rehearsal dinners and company functions.

It’s already had some high-end visitors: The Marriott board of directors held a business dinner there during their meeting here several weeks ago, including executive chairman Bill Marriott, CEO Arne Sorenson and board member Mitt Romney. (Yes, that’s a real title.) A glass garage door on one end can be opened to expand into the kitchen, where executive chef Chris Coleman can set up a chef’s station and customize menus. Rental cost for that will vary by menu, of course, but expect about $100 a person including food and drinks.

On Saturday nights, though, they’re going to keep it with the speakeasy theme. From 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. (or later, depending on demand), you’ll go to be the loading dock and get taken into The Dock for special cocktails. (Watch out if you’re wearing heels. They’re serious about actually clamoring up the steps to the loading dock, including over a drainage grate at the bottom of the steps.)

“This is a blank canvas,” Potter says. “We can turn this into so many things. This is my area to play.” He says this is the only Marriott doing a space like this.

To get the idea across, the Marriott brought in a small acting troupe, led by Donna Scott, to act out a mini-drama involving a madam, a guy on the lam and a detective in pursuit. Best laugh of the night: When the detective “interrogated” people in the crowd, he spotted local writer Katie Levans and demanded “What’s your agenda?”

Me, I was just an observer. Anyways . . .

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis