The speakeasy trend has seen plenty of ups, downs and detours over the years. Generally gone now are the days when being in the know is required to land a perch at a swanky private watering hole. Hidden doors, secret knocks, dark passageways - these mechanisms of the old times, when such protocols were actually legit, have begun to play themselves out of modern favor, turning the rigmarole into little more than a charade. Let's face it - when New Yorkers scoff at the concept that has saturated their city, it's time to dress it down.
These days you're more likely to find private bars informally earning the speakeasy label because it evokes mysterious tones and illicit metaphors of a bygone era that comfort imbibers. Just about everyone is hiding from something, not just prohibition agents, and these venues provide that fleeting sense of escape.
Which brings us to restaurateur baller Will Richey's latest, enchanting AF gift to food and drink lovers here - The Coat Room.
Covertly nestled in the dark, wood-paneled, basement of Brasserie Saison, Cville's newest clandestine bar delivers a modern fine dining experience shrouded in old-timey allure and romance. Offering two seatings, at 6pm and 8pm, on Friday and Saturday evenings, The Coat Room is destined to become one of the most unique destinations in the area.
Running the show is one of the best tag teams in the business -- sommelier/wine buyer/manager Will Curley and bar manager Reid Dougherty. These veterans are in their element here, seemingly made for the kind of high end, light touch service The Coat Room brings. We frequent the upstairs dining room regularly and have seen them in action, so needless to say, it came as no shock to be dealt an intimate, polished experience from their hands.
On the first Saturday evening of service, when we descend the stairs and land at a table beneath a mounted vintage sport coat, a round of bubbles is set before us. And so begins our giddy little first look.
Recs + Rants
It's basically a spa for drinkers. Dougherty and Curley created an exclusive imbibing blueprint for The Coat Room - wines, beers and cocktails you won't find on the list upstairs. The Parchment Fizz (Bluecoat gin, massenez poire william, priortat natur bianco vermouth, peychaud's bitters, absinthe rinse) served in a Collins glass was the opener we needed -- refreshing, effervescent, a lovely balance of bittersweet, almost a sassy cousin to the Negroni Bianco. A playful homage to the District, where the base spirits were made, the DC/DC (greenhat gin, don ciccio cinque, nocino, finochietto, habanero tincture) deals a blend of bitter, spicy and smoky that candidly felt criminal, so we nicknamed it the Marion Barry. The show stopper was A Much Better Rusty Nail (suntory toki whiskey, carpano antica vermouth, war & rust quinquina, drambuie). Will was so smitten over this one that he has already begun drafting his next Cville cocktail feature on it, so we'll just leave this tease right here and not steal his booze writing thunder. Props to Dougherty for incorporating a P+K favorite local spirit, War & Rust, into a dreamy cocktail.
Curley's refreshing and playful tasting notes beneath each offering on the wine list are a model for accessibility that we'd love to see catch on around town. The abbreviated descriptions beg conversation and curiosity, which he loves to sate with charming crumbs of education. He makes wine an adventurous experience, not a stuffy and intimidating endeavor for drinkers.
In no particular order, some of our favorite clever quips:
- Rovellotti 'Chioso dei Pomi' Ghemme Piedmont, It, 2009: jumps out of the glass, complex, incredible finish
- Comte St. Hubert 'Muscadet Sevre-et-maine,' Loire Valley, Fr, 2000: can almost vote and go to war
- Masciarelli 'Villa Gemma,' Abruzzo, It, 2007: montepulciano on steroids, legendary vintage
- Domaine Tollot-Beaut 'Chorey-les-Beaune,' Burgundy, Fr, 2014: focused, precise, big shoulders
- Ametzoi 'Rubentis,' Getaria, Es, 2016: the king of txakolina rosé
We crushed that txakolina, by the way!
Let it flow, let yourself go. The speakeasy life is mostly about letting a romantic experience seamlessly unfold, not so much about overthinking or fussing over your order. Unless you’re a high maintenance cat - in which case you’re really in the wrong place - we strongly recommend surrendering your food order (with any allergy intel) to Curley’s adept hands and sticking with the business of whispering sweet nothings to your date and/or eavesdropping on hushed conversations around you.
Share the love. We’ve opined that the food at Brasserie Saison is some of the most creative and inspired in Charlottesville. The dinner menu at The Coat Room is the same jam as upstairs, so diners are free to order away. Pro tip: If you decide against a dealer's choice model, consider the table size when you order. These small round tops are not ideal for a conventional, linear dining style. Sharing small/large plates in a staggered succession will keep your night from turning into a round of table Tetris.
Summer fare. On our maiden subterranean visit, Curley guided us through a tour of light and refreshing summer options Chef Tyler Teass created for dog days like this one. We opened with white stone oysters dressed with a michelada mignonette, not technically a new dish but a P+K go-to and the perfect pair for bubbles. Next came a dish we're already plotting to meet again soon - smashed cucumbers with lump crab and carrot-miso dressing. This welcome Teass riff on a classic Asian dish had our forks clashing for the last bits of crab swimming in that sweet nectar of a marinade. Then the cucumber + zucchini gazpacho hit us in the mouth and left us swooning. The headline ingredients are buzzed and strained with olive oil, vinegar and red onion to create this smooth, refreshing, cold summer soup, then the whole jam is topped with pickled, green tomato chowchow and Caromont Farm goat cheese. All of these lovely vegetables hail from Richey's Red Row Farm in Esmont, VA, culminating in a dish that couldn't be more local. The grilled branzino, dressed in a lovely Mediterranean sauce vierge (tomatoes, red onion olive oil, anchovies, garlic, capers, almonds) was just the shot of protein we needed, so delicate and savory. In the end we waved off the idea of dessert, but Curley wasn't having that, so he sent out the cutest little saucers of local pickled peach galette topped with cream cheese gelato and tiny mint leaves. It was the perfect punctuation for a light summer meal.
Instagram be damned. This will surprise no one - The Coat Room is dark. There's no anti-photog policy here, but there also aren't enough filters in the world to compensate for the poor lighting that will make those Instagram posts, like ours, meh. If our intentions on the first visit were not blog related, we'd have kept our phones stashed. Glowing screens don't exactly jive with the vibe.
History repeats. This isn’t Richey's first rodeo in the speakeasy category. Locals will know that for this creation he's drawing from the first time he absconded with this town's heart in 2014 by founding the distinguished Alley Light -- another P+K favorite hideout.
Book it! Unlike Brasserie Saison upstairs, which does not take reservations, its alter ego speakeasy is reservation-only. With service limited to two nights per week and a capacity for 8 patrons, it's likely to be tough table, so plan ahead.
As we resurface to the streets above, we sense the presence of the same intoxicating muse that spiked us with shades eloquence on the heels of our first Brasserie Saison night. And just like that night, we return to our barn in the country hollow to mix rounds of nightcaps and scribble feverishly into the trusty P+K notebook our fresh takes on The Coat Room. The next morning that notebook had vanished and remains a ghost to this day. Thankfully the experience was so impressed upon us that recalling these lovely highlights was a summer breeze.