The flames from the oil lanterns on each table gleam softly in the dark, providing just enough light to see dining companions and to read through the worn pages of the classic books that contain the restaurant’s menus.
There is no storefront, no parking lot, no sign – simply a nondescript building with a few stairs leading down to a sunken-in door, covered in white industrial-looking letters reading, “The Bookstore.”
To enter the building is to be transported into a Prohibition-era speakeasy of the 1920s – the atmosphere is completed by live jazz music every Thursday through Saturday night.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted in a small waiting area lined with old novels in book shelves. After sitting down, each customer is given one of those novels, which contains the menu and “House Rules” for the speakeasy. These rules help set the tone for the evening, urging gentlemen to remove their hats, prohibiting minors in the building after 9 p.m. and citing ordering a Coors Lite as “immediate grounds for dismissal.”
The 1920s speakeasy atmosphere has earned the Bookstore Speakeasy, located on Adams Street on Bethlehem’s South Side, the title of “Best Bar Ambiance” by Lehigh Valley Style for the past two years. Couple the ambiance with the restaurant’s food and drink, the Bookstore Speakeasy has become a hit with college students seeking out a spot for a special occasion, as well as both locals and non-locals, since it opened in 2008.
In fact, general manager Jamie Hamod said it is not uncommon to hear of people driving considerable distances from the Poconos or New Jersey to sample the Bookstore Speakeasy’s 50-plus specialty cocktails and variety of specialty food items, such as chickpea popcorn and citrus and herb-encrusted mahi-mahi.
Hamod said the vision for the restaurant was and continues to be inspired by its craft cocktails.
“Two restaurateurs from New York City wanted to bring the craft cocktail world to the Lehigh Valley,” he said. “Because we’re centrally located and so accessible to New York and Philadelphia, the vision was to bring something comparable to that scene to the Lehigh Valley.”
The cocktail list, which changes seasonally, features multiple gin, whiskey, scotch, egg, champagne, absinthe, cognac, vodka, tequila, dessert and seasonal cocktails, with each drink averaging seven ingredients.
“We really try to make everything perfect,” bartender Gabriel Manansala said. “There is so much time and energy that goes into making the customer experience as excellent as it can be through these cocktails. All the bartenders get to work three hours early every day to start juicing, making cordials, and preparing everything to be as fresh as possible.”
Hamod credits the cocktail menu for drawing in a large portion of the restaurant’s patrons.
“Everybody who works here is an artist in some way, and they have a passion for what they do,” he said. “For us to put a cocktail menu together takes three months – just trial and error, and the effort and love that goes into it is really felt. I think it translates to customers, and I think that’s why people continue to come back.”
In addition to the cocktails, the 1920s setting draws a lot of customers to the bar.
Sana Ali, ’17, said the atmosphere is what captured her interest in the Bookstore Speakeasy when she initially visited last semester for a friend’s 22nd birthday.
“When I first went, I just loved the ambiance and thought it was so cool and different that it’s kind of underground and hidden. I thought the live band in the corner was a perfect fit with everything else going on around it,” Ali said.
Hamod said tremendous attention is paid to the food as well, and one person on the staff is solely responsible for making the house pickles while another one just makes the pierogi.
The menu includes snacks, small plates, large plates, flatbreads and sandwiches. Some patrons prefer to split snacks and small plates, while others look for the typical three-course meal.
For Ali and other Lehigh students, the quality of the food, drinks and ambiance comes with a cost that puts the Bookstore Speakeasy out of price range for regular visits.
Each cocktail costs $12, and the entrees usually consist of pricey items like short ribs, steak and crab cakes. For college-aged patrons, it’s a special occasion destination for dates or celebrations.
Manansala said with so many other bars on the South Side offering less expensive food and drink options for college students, the Bookstore Speakeasy’s regular clientele mostly consists of young professionals and older couples.
“Price-wise, it’s not a place I would go every week. It’s a fancier, upscale place to go, particularly for the South Side,” Ali said. “But it’s a great place to go for a special occasion because when you walk in, it definitely takes you out of the real world. It’s not just going to dinner, it’s going out to escape for the night.”