PROVIDENCE — Tucked under the stairs at Hotel Dreyfus throughout the 1920s, forbidden cocktails would come out in a chilled cocoa pot. And local legend says that favored guests were treated to their main courses with a side of cognac, burgundy, or bourbon — despite Prohibition.
Providence, and all of Rhode Island, was seen as one of the most anti-Prohibition states in the union at the time. The General Assembly never ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol, and the state attorney general gleefully challenged the law in court for years.
He lost, but liquor and champagne regularly flowed in some of downtown Providence’s best open secrets.
It was easy, with a few hundred miles of coastline, for smugglers with boats to bring in liquor from the Bahamas and Canada, according to local news reports. And Hotel Dreyfus, on Washington Street, held some of the state’s largest banquets for labor groups and political parties. Even former Newport Mayor Mortimer A. Sullivan held a “night time speaking engagement” in the basement, which was said to be a speakeasy, in 1928 — at the height of the prohibition era.
Prohibition ended in 1933, and Hotel Dreyfus closed years later. Senator Josh Miller and his wife, Nancy Miller, eventually opened a farm-to-table restaurant called Local 121 in the space, and it became a staple in downtown. Local 121 closed in 2017.
Two years later, restauranteur Alex Tomasso walked through the building and saw the main dining room’s intricately carved woodwork, columns in the middle of the dining room, and stained glass windows around the bar. He was intrigued.
But when he went down the stairs and saw an intimate space without windows and a disguised tunnel shaft (used to bring in the liquor during Prohibition), and learned the history of the space, he decided to set down roots in Providence again.
Tomasso opened The George on Washington last year, and recently unveiled his new speakeasy, Hyde, in the same place where the bigwigs of Providence would sneak their banned booze.
Enter through the main door off Washington and wind down the animal print-carpeted staircase into a dark room of velvet curtains, chestnut-colored leather couches, and plush pillows. Crystal balls sit at each table and Swarovski crystal lamps hang from the walls. One inconspicuous cabinet at the front of the room can still be opened -- it’s where bootleggers would hand off their top-shelf bottles to business owners and bar keepers.
The bar is small, but mighty, spinning cocktails next to the stage where comedians, actors, and musicians often perform. The modern day bar keepers shake and stir classics that would have been sipped on throughout the ‘20s, such as the Hemingway Daiquiri with Plantation white rum, BB Maraschino liqueur, lime, and fresh grapefruit.
The Vesper — another classic — is shaken with Lillet Blanc from France, Snow Leopard Vodka, and Monkey 47, a Schwarzwald dry gin that uses fresh bitter oranges, lemons, and grapefruits. It’s garnished with a bright lemon peel in a glass coup.
Their Hyde Manhattan is stirred with a Rittenhouse rye-whiskey from Heaven Hill Distillery (an award-winning Kentucky distillery established in 1935 known for its distinct, spicy flavor), Cocci vermouth di Tourino of Italy, cherry bitters, and strained with a Luxardo brandied cherry.
“We want people to come downstairs and feel like they are in another era. They come here for the experience, and we give them our take on the classics,” said Tomasso.
The menu downstairs at Hyde is much smaller than the restaurant upstairs, and Tomasso says it’s “meant to entertain.”
“Savory nibbles,” from the kitchen, as he calls them, range from mushroom caps with seasoned house stuffing ($7) to shrimp cocktail shooters, served in a martini glass with cocktail sauce, horseradish, and lemon ($7). The bacon-wrapped scallop skewers are served with a Thai chili sauce ($8), and the cheese and charcuterie board ($14) features meats and formaggio from Italy and Spain, chosen by Chef Juan Fernandes, who said he previously worked in the kitchen at Hemenway’s.
“We want people to come to Hyde to forget about the outside,” said Fernandes.
Tomasso said the desserts are made daily from scratch ($12 each) and include créme brûlee with bundles of fresh berries, a square of tiramisu, banana cream pie with vanilla ice cream, fresh whipped cream, and plump strawberries.
After the first of the year, there will be live entertainment at Hyde every week starting on Wednesdays, when DJ Corey Young will host. A singer-songwriter series will take place each Thursday, and live music with play until close on Fridays and Saturdays.
But on Sundays starting around 3 p.m., Hyde will host tea dances, said general manager Mario Purro. Tea dances are a nod to another era, said to have started in the 1940s and 1950s, when they were a way for the LGBTQ community to gather and openly dance together.
“The idea is to have a daytime dance party where older, gay gentleman can come to relax,” said Purro, who Tomasso said deserves most of the credit for putting the upcoming weekly installment together.
“I knew I wanted to do an alternative night on Sundays to offer the community that I’m part of a brand new venue for a once-a-week part here at Hyde,” said Tomasso.
While waltzing around the ground-level space prior to opening one recent weekday, Tomasso touched his new favorite elements of the sultry space, like the lounging corners, matte table clothes, and gold pull chains from the floor lamps.
“We want people to be able to come for dinner at the George, and then come to Hyde to spend the night,” said Tomasso.
Hyde is located at 121 Washington Street in Providence. They are open Wednesdays through Sundays. Both The George and Hyde will be open on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.