Past Experience

Past Experience

It looked like a little home library, with parlor chairs, bookshelves and a Christmas tree. Then I found the slot where I was supposed to give the password: “silver bells.”

I had hoped for a kind of furtive cloak-and-dagger exchange, but I knew Branford’s 1928 Cocktail Club was already expecting me. So my words came out like this: “Hi, it’s Pat. The password is ‘silver bells,’ right?” It was a much clumsier scene than Dashiell Hammett would have written. Still, I felt a frisson of excitement when the shelves suddenly became a door to the inner sanctum.

Entering 1928 is opening a door to the past. It’s the first contemporary Connecticut speakeasy to incorporate two iconic features of the illegal bars that proliferated during Prohibition (1920-33): a hidden door and daily password, conveyed via ephemeral story posts to the bar’s Instagram page. The word, “speakeasy,” originated during the 19th century, referring to drinking establishments that sold alcoholic beverages without a license. Customers of these bars or restaurants were encouraged to “speak easy,” or softly, about their presence in the community to avoid drawing the attention of local law enforcement officials.

But speakeasies really took off during Prohibition, when an estimated 200,000 opened in the United States, 32,000 in New York City alone. By comparison, the New England Historical Society estimates Connecticut’s count at a relatively modest 1,500, with a more impressive 400 of these located in New Haven. One of the Nutmeg State’s better-known speakeasies was the Castle Inn in Old Saybrook, owned by relatives of aviator Charles Lindbergh, which hid its illicit liquor within fake walls and guest rooms and counted among its customers Charlie Chaplin, Helen Hayes and Ethel Barrymore.

Speakeasies ranged from glamorous nightclubs to rank cellars and generally fueled a rise in organized crime. Still, in the 21st century they’ve undergone a nostalgic resurgence. 1928 co-owner and genre enthusiast Tony Cuomo says, “What distinguishes these places from other contemporary bars is their vibe: Generally, they’re places with great lighting, nice music, friendly people and amazing cocktails, where you’re not distracted by walls of TVs or people arguing”—a conclusion he came to while living in New York City from 2004 to 2011 and pursuing a fascination with this new old breed of bar. “I started going to them as a hobby, then it became a passion.”

He fantasized about creating a place of his own, an idea that gained traction when son-in-law Frank Dean, a bartender and hospitality specialist, entered his life a few years later. “I know about business and finance,” Cuomo says. “He knows about service.” When Yooki Yama, a Japanese restaurant that had been a fixture in downtown Branford for nearly a quarter-century, closed its doors in 2021, Cuomo and Dean saw a chance to make the dream come true. They recruited Cuomo’s son Anthony for construction work, and “the three of us would sit in my kitchen in the middle of the night talking design,” from furnishings to fixtures to flooring to the sapele wood bar Anthony would build from the ground up.

Once inside, I was knocked out by the gorgeous intimacy of the red, black and gold inner sanctum, with upholstered barrel-back chairs, parquet flooring, tin ceilings and an array of vintage artwork on the walls. Of course, it was the cocktails I’d come for, broken into signature options and classics. The signature ’28 Manhattan ($16) combined Rittenhouse Rye, Antica Carpano sweet vermouth, Pierre Ferrand curaçao, a whiff of orange oil while leaving out the bitters, making it as warm and welcoming as an old friend, while the classic ’28 Espresso Martini ($14) actually departed from tradition by using Plantation 3 Star Rum instead of vodka, and tasted all the richer for the change. Much as I savored these choices, on my next visit, I intend to try the Strawberry Fields $14, with Arbikie strawberry vodka, or the Sazerac ($14), featuring Rittenhouse Rye, Peychaud bitters and flamed absinthe.

Every detail of these drinks, whether stirred, shaken or thrown, is planned down to the style of glass it’s served in, whether coupe, martini, rocks or Nick & Nora. Preparation of each felt like performance art; I was transfixed watching our bartender, Christian La Croix, pour a waterfall of prosecco into one guest’s cocktail.

1928 also makes a selection of light bites available, from chips and guacamole and meat-optional charcuterie boards to indulgent desserts courtesy of nearby Home’s pastry chef. My companion and I loved and were totally satisfied by the Small Charcuterie Board ($32) laden with fresh grapes, dried fruit, a selection of cheeses, cold cuts, nuts, baguette slices and jam. We also indulged in a beyond decadent and highly recommended slice of Almond Joy Chocolate Cake ($10).

Given the level of passion and execution behind the project, 1928’s outlook looks bright for 2024. “Only 10 percent of bars celebrate their second anniversary,” Cuomo says. “We’re cross that abyss to success, and we’re going to make it.”

1928 Cocktail Club
1018 Main St, Branford (map)
Tues 7pm-midnight, Wed-Thurs 6pm-midnight, Fri-Sat 5pm-1am
Website | Instagram

Written by Patricia Grandjean.

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