DC Speakeasy Keeps Having Trouble With Its Liquor License

Approached by investigators, the owner at first avoided revealing his identity.

Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigators took this photo while investigating The Speak.

The Speak channeled the secret bars of the Prohibition era by operating its dim-lit cocktail lounge behind a hidden door, but it resembled a real speakeasy a little too closely when it first opened in May of 2015. The DC liquor board shut it down after discovering the K Street basement bar didn’t have a proper liquor license.

The Speak returned again, under new ownership, this July. And again, its liquor license had problems. The bar has been closed for about a month with a note on its website reading “Due to some clerical errors we have to go dark for a while.”

Last Wednesday, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board cited the bar for two violations: one for using an unapproved trade name and another for expanding operations to the basement floor without the board’s approval. The business’ certificate of occupancy only covers the space upstairs at 1413 K Street Northwest, which is occupied by New Orleans-style bar Vieux Carre also from local construction-company owner James Tillman. The basement was only supposed to be used for liquor storage.

The bar now faces a $1,000 fine, but the owner can request a hearing before the liquor board to protest it.

Vieux Carre has requested to change its liquor license to include the basement bar going forward. It has not, however, applied to use The Speak as its trade name. (Only Vieux Carre is listed on the liquor license.) That means the basement drinking den still can’t operate as The Speak for now.

Representatives from Vieux Carre could not immediately be reached for comment. It’s unclear when the bar will reopen.

Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigators showed up at The Speak on July 25 and saw a fully stocked shelves of liquor and patrons consuming alcohol throughout the low-lit bar.

They returned the next day and found the lower level closed off with an iron gate and padlock. Instead, they entered Vieux Carre and asked to speak with an owner or manager. While they were waiting, a man approached them and asked if they needed help. One of the investigators asked the man what his relationship was to the establishment, to which he responded “let me get you a manager.”

The investigators suspected that the man was actually, in fact, owner James Tillman. They’d already looked up a picture of him from his driver’s license. Another person identifying himself as the manager then approached the investigators and confirmed that the man was Tillman. One of the investigators requested that the manager “advise Mr. Tillman that his presence was requested.”

Tillman then came over and finally identified himself as the owner. He and the investigators then moved to the basement to talk away from customers; there, the investigators informed Tillman of the bar’s violations.

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.