The Speak Is Back, But the Speakeasy’s Liquor License Problems May Not Be Over

A New Orleans-style cocktail bar is slated to open upstairs.

The secret entrance of The Speak. Photograph by Jessica Sidman.

Most modern-day “speakeasies” only pretend to be illegal drinking dens, but K Street basement bar The Speak really was one. The place didn’t have a proper liquor license, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board shut it down in November after about six months of operation. The regulatory troubles also put a halt to a “caviar fusion lounge” planned upstairs from the same owner, Ajiboye Laosebikan.

But now, The Speak is back, and the half-built caviar lounge is being transformed into Vieux Carre, a New Orleans-inspired cocktail bar serving po’ boys, Cajun fries, and snowballs. Both bars at 1413 K Street, Northwest, come from local construction company owner James Tillman, who took over the lease from Laosebikan. Tillman had been a fan of The Speak, so he called brand consultant Seth McClelland, who conceptualized the original speakeasy, to help him reopen it and create the new bar upstairs.

It turns out, however, The Speak may still be a real speakeasy. According to Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration spokesperson Jessie Cornelius, it’s a violation for an establishment to operate under any trade name that has not been approved by the liquor board. The Speak is not an approved trade name—only Vieux Carre is listed on the liquor license. Cornelius says ABRA is investigating the matter.

McClelland, who’s acted as the face of the business, declined to comment about the trade name issue yesterday afternoon.

“This is all news to me,” says Andrew Kline, the lawyer who helped Tillman with his liquor license application. “I don’t know anything about that.”

In an interview last week, McClelland—who previously owned One Lounge and whose consulting company YBC stands for “Young Ballers Creative”—said he wasn’t aware of any problems with the original liquor license before The Speak got shut down. The bar ran into problems when ABRA inspectors showed up on November 1, 2015, after receiving an anonymous complaint about the establishment operating without an appropriate liquor license. The liquor board had not yet approved a transfer of the license from the previous occupant of the space, Tattoo Bar, to Laosebikan’s company, Boyermarketing LLC. Also, the license did not cover the basement of the building where The Speak is located.

“We walked away very sadly because I just really loved this bar a lot,” McClelland said.

When the bar reopened last week, few changes had been made. Patrons still descend a set of stairs into an unfinished plaster-covered atrium with a “for rent” sign and enter the bar through a door hidden behind a framed mirror.

The bar plays hip-hop music and serves classic cocktails. Bartender Jeff Coles, who oversaw the drink menu at The Speak the first go-around, is back again as beverage director. The only foods are chips and olives.

Upstairs at Vieux Carre, one of the few remnants of the never-completed caviar bar was an ornate iron railing that lined the mezzanine and staircase. Between that and the alley-like entrance, “I immediately just thought of New Orleans,” McClelland says. That’s how the concept for a New Orleans-style cocktail bar came to be.

The cocktail menu, also created by Coles, will play on the French, American Southern, and Caribbean influences of the Big Easy. Coles plans to serve “craft” versions of sickly sweet party staples like Hurricanes and Hand Grenades as well as older classics that people may be less familiar with, like the Brandy Crusta, La Louisiane, and Absinthe Frappe.

The bar will also serve a Ramos Gin Fizz, which is a New Orleans breakfast classic. Many bars don’t serve it because it requires at 12 minutes of shaking to make properly. “Some of these big old New Orleans hotel bars you’ll see where people are ordering a lot of them, they employ people who aren’t actually barbacks, just sort of professional shakers,” Coles says. Vieux Carre takes a shortcut by using a whipped cream canister to emulsify the drink much faster.

The food menu will consist of Cajun fries and po’ boys with oyster, shrimp, sausage, or chicken. If you don’t want it in sandwich form, you can get a “po’ bowl” with just the proteins and a dipping sauce. There will also be snowballs with or without alcohol.

If all goes as planned, Vieux Carre will open Friday.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.