Video by Jon Alexander
Looking for the epitome of cool? Find the building at 1009 Olive St., then walk around back until you see the rear door. There’s a bell there. Ring it, and be ready to say that week’s code. You’ve just arrived at the only password-protected lounge in St. Louis. Welcome to the Thaxton Speakeasy.
The Downtown underground lounge, as co-owner Kim Pitliangas calls it, takes up the lower level of a 1927-built former Kodak building. Of the four levels, three and a half are finished. The lower floor houses the Thaxton Speakeasy and the others are used for private events.
Guests are greeted by soaring ceilings and floor-to-ceiling art deco design. A cut-out illustration of a mustached, zoot suit-clad man may be spotted nearby—or the gentlemen himself, known as Mad Dog and often mistakenly called Mr. Thaxton, may even make an appearance. (He’s the building’s sole inhabitant and the emcee for private events, among other Thaxton roles.) The lower level is moody and dark while the upstairs areas are bright and expansive. With these photo opportunities, it’s no wonder weddings are a large part of the business.
“Ten years ago, Peter [Venezia, business partner] and I opened the speakeasy. Our initial goal was to open a lounge and to fill the void of dance clubs on one end and sports bars on the other end,” Pitliangas explains, noting the shortage of lounges. The building was owned by her proprietor father, Mark Pitliangas, and too beautiful to pass up. “We opened the speakeasy and very quickly realized we were also in the wedding business.” Turns out, cool and pretty places attract brides-to-be.
Assuming private events are not booked, the speakeasy is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Thursday nights, known as Prohibition Thursdays, come with live music and the occasional swing dancing. People also like to dress up in theme on these days, she says, although that isn’t required. Friday and Saturday nights have DJs in the speakeasy. And no matter the day, the bar itself is filled with seasonal craft cocktails and that timeless bar vibe.
“We are definitely a hidden gem, mostly because much of our activity is in the evenings and weekends,” says Pitliangas, noting the bittersweet feeling of knowing people walk by the building during the day and have no idea what it is. There’s a cool factor to being unknown, she says, but on the outside during the day this building could be easy to pass up. “[Being located Downtown is] exciting because I think there’s so much potential, and it’s also frustrating because there are a lot of misconceptions about the city and people not understanding what it’s like being down here.”
Pitliangas’ commute isn’t far, as she travels into work from the Skinker DeBaliviere area. “I’m excited—I think there’s potential for a lot of great things to happen [Downtown.]” She notes her joy over having 10 years under her belt as a Downtown business owner, and credits the city and its residents as the reason for her business’ success and ability to grow. The Thaxton draws in a diverse group of people, including a lot of tourists; the speakeasy part of the business has received “almost zero dollars” of marketing help and has grown largely thanks to word of mouth.
Those looking to visit this exclusive destination should join The List “to receive the skinny,” says the speakeasy’s website. That week’s password and hours are texted to those on The List, making for a smooth entrance in the back-alley door. Speakeasy patrons may sign up on the business’ website.
But don’t worry; unlike a traditional speakeasy you can get in without knowing the password. “We’re not a pretentious kind of place,” Pitliangas explains. You won’t be turned away at the door, but you will pay full price instead of the discounted, password-protected rate. What would a prohibition-style bar be without the ability to bribe the doorman?