Sunday, October 25, 2009

Local history can be fun.

I'm pretty sure I had dinner last night at a speakeasy. I'd been there before, and I'd known it was an old building, but last night as I was leaving I spotted the "Baker's Cafe -- established in 1933" on the sign, and that pretty much clinched it. (Unless the owners want to confirm, which I won't hold my breath for. They don't even have a web site. All they do is occupy their very old building that looks suspiciously like an old dance club, and serve really good food.)

For those of you unaware of the details of American history, from 1922 to 1933, the United States made alcohol illegal. This led to a whole lot of bootlegging of illegal liquor in from other countries, brewing it in the basement, or mixing it in the bathtub, leading to the term 'bathtub gin'. Cocktails became popular in this era, because they had to mix the raw booze with something to make it drinkable. Sociologists also speculate that it was this era that romanticized gangsters, and it certainly led average citizens to disregard federal law to a degree never seen before. Plus a lot criminologists now use it as an example of how illegal booze funded gangs (Al Capone and all that mess), and now illegal drugs fund modern gangs, and, gee, look how the older gangs died out when booze was made legal again. Prohibition appears to have been the trigger for a lot of modern lawlessness.

But that's a rant for another day.

During prohibition, this area was a hotbed of illegal activity. Not only was southern Ohio's hill country full of stills (parts are to this day), a lot of farm kids pulled in extra money running booze across Lake Erie from Canada, then down to the Ohio River where it could be shipped nearly anywhere. I've got a couple great-uncles on one side of the family who were 'rum runners' back in the day. I remember them at family reunions, drinking a beer or two and laughing over old adventures (some where pretty good). On the other side of the family, my grandfather always seemed to have money in the 20s, and no one's quite sure where it came from, and in this area, well, where ELSE would it come from?

There isn't any shame (at least, in most families) at this point, over such things. Just mild amusement. It's so common - most people, if they start asking questions, will find some fairly close relative who ran a still, worked in a speakeasy, or ran rum back in the day.

So, last night, we all went out for dinner. It's a little place across the street from what used to be one of the largest factories in the world, situated in among the row houses that the company built for its workers. A small rectangular cinder-block building, back against a hill. Nondescript except for the Cadillacs, Nissans, BMWs, and Mercedes parked around it. (Just like back in the day, I betcha.) Inside, there's a long hall with rest-rooms on one side and a solid wall on the other - behind the wall is the very small kitchen. Into the main room, there are booths all along one side, a bar that runs the entire length of the building on the other, and tables in the middle. If you took out the rickety tables, you'd have a club with a dance floor in the middle.

The food is simple but excellent: if you order a steak, you get a plate with a perfectly cooked steak in the middle. They don't fuck around with garnishing. You also get a potato and a salad. The waitresses call everyone 'honey'. The decor is old, nice paneled walls with beer signs over top. The pies (I had peanut butter pie with hot fudge sauce) are divine. If I didn't know better I'd swear they had my grandmother in the back making them. (When my mother-in-law's friend found out where we were going for dinner, she slipped my father-in-law some money and asked him to get a slice of the peanut butter pie to go, for her. And not to forget the hot fudge. He gave it to her this morning when she stopped by for coffee.) People show up in everything from jeans and tee shirts to mink coats and evening wear, depending largely on what time of day it is. There's a huge wine list, and a bartender who will mix up any cocktail you could possibly imagine.

Established 1933. Yup. That's the year prohibition ended, and every speakeasy in the country had to go legit as a restaurant or bar, or go under. Looks like Baker's went with the restaurant idea.


Donna Lee said...

That sounds like my kind of place. Just give me my perfectly prepared food and leave off the fancy stuff.

Louiz said...

Sounds like an interesting place, with a cool history:)

Mandy said...

I love stories about rum-runners and such! My sister did a bit of geneologic research on my mom's family some years back (she comes from Virginia coal-mining stock) and some of the stories about some of the relatives cracked me up! One of my favorites was about a many-times-great Uncle Sol, who everyone said was a "money-making man". Of course, this didn't mean he was a businessman - it meant he was a counterfeiter!

Barbara said...

When I was growing up in southern Indiana, right on the Ohio river, there were plenty of cars on the roads painted flat black with no chrome. Wonder where the moonshine was going?

Sounds like my kind of restaurant too, honey.

Alwen said...

My husband says his grandfather used to have a beer-making setup hidden in the house walls.

On a walk one day when we first moved down here, we noticed hops vines growing all over a farm outbuilding on the property diagonally touching ours. Wayyyyy back from the road, on the back side. Huh, why would anybody plant hops so far out of the way?

That's where we got the roots of the hops vines that shade our west windows.

Jenni said...

I've been reading your blog forever. Not sure if I've commented before, probably. Anyways, I knew you moved to Ohio, but I had no idea you moved so close to me LOL

Amy Lane said...

Very cool-- and yeah-- definitely my kind of place!!! (And the ambience... so tasty!)

HeatherinSF said...

What a fun story, and an interesting history. Your dinner sounds wonderful too! There's a local bar here that's a former speakeasy, with secret doors behind bookcases and all that, great fun to go there!