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Local speakeasy features old-school spirits and sounds.
On a recent afternoon inside the dimly lit and hidden lounge known as The Parlour, co-owner Jackson Somphonphakdy sets down on the bar what looks like a cross between his great-grandma’s favorite lamp and a vintage lemonade dispenser. It’s a setup he says he uses each night to conjure a spirit Parisians once coined “the green fairy.”
It’s not voodoo. But it is potent.
The Absinthe fountain, a signature vessel at the speakeasy-style bar, works like this: the bartender pours into a glass a one-ounce shot of Absinthe, of which there are six varieties on the menu. He then places a flat cutout utensil over the opening of the glass, and sets a sugar cube on top. As water flows out of the antique dispenser and over the sugar, white clouds of sweet liquid mix into the once illegal green beverage swirling in the glass. Sometimes a bit of fire is used to caramelize the sugar. Either way, the 136-proof concoction promises to send imbibers flying.
Both the booze and the beats on tap at the Parlour hearken back to the forbidden and exotic nightlife of the 1920s prohibition-era. Situated in the heart of Jacksonville’s San Marco neighborhood, The Parlour, a narrow shotgun-style space, opened surreptitiously in the spring of 2013. But tales of sophisticated bartenders crafting vintage cocktails and old-school jive sessions spread quickly across the First Coast.
“We didn’t want to grow too fast and give people bad service,” says Bob Smith, co-owner of The Parlour and The Grape and Grain Exchange, who sports sideburns and a silver ball pendant around his neck.
In the beginning only those patrons well-connected enough to know about it—and book a reservation—were allowed to enter, either through a sliding bookcase connected to the Grape and Grain Exchange, a boutique package store located on San Marco square, or through a side-alley door marked only by a black awning. Inspired by the original speakeasies, which used passwords for entry, passwords eventually became the currency of cool at The Parlour, allowing a broader crowd access to the lounge and its aged Clisby cocktail, perfected in charred whiskey barrels stored high above the bar, or to bands like Tala, a Brazilian inspired blues band.
Once inside, dramatic deep violet drapes envelop the musicians’ nook, anchored by a 1952 upright piano. Designed to resemble a basement reminiscent of Harlem’s infamous speakeasies, The Parlour’s high ceilings feature chandeliers and exposed pipes. A dark wooden bar, running nearly the length of the room, glitters with glass bottles of small-batch spirits like Absinthe, the Swiss green-hued botanical spirit; Fernet, an Italian eucalyptus flavored digestif; and Becherovka, a Czech-made minty liqueur.
Somphonphakdy, who wears his dark hair slicked back, pours a shot-glass full of Becherovka, while Smith describes the taste of the clear beverage as “Christmas in your mouth.”
Business partners Somphonphakdy and Smith, both 33, grew up in San Marco and attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. As a kid, Smith remembers buying treats at Peterson’s five and dime, which once occupied the space now home to the Grape and Grain Exchange and The Parlour.
“Now I guess I’m just a bigger kid in a bigger candy store,” Smith says with a laugh.
The idea for the Parlour evolved over a decade of both men working in and managing some of the region’s best restaurants and bars, from One Ocean to Bistro AIX. Then a job with an alcohol distribution company helped Smith, a certified sommelier, realize the need for a craft-cocktail bar in Jacksonville that would combine the friends’ culinary and bartending expertise.
The original plan for The Parlour, a name derived from the French word “parler,” meaning “to speak,” never included tunes. But with a percolating culture of talented throw-back-style musicians, and very few spaces for them to play, The Parlour’s stage took shape. Thursday to Sunday, bands like Toots Lorraine and The Traffic, a local West-Coast style blues ensemble, and Al Maniscalco, a nationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist, play to a packed house—about 65 people.
In a now legendary jam session in August 2013, Marcus Roberts, a Jacksonville-native and jazz virtuoso, tickled the keys of Smith’s piano along side Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer-Prize winning jazz trumpeter. The moment came together because Marsalis was in town reporting on Roberts’s life for a 60 Minutes feature, and the two were looking for a place to play. The musical magic sparked a creative charge at The Parlour that continues today.
The sounds emanating from the joint celebrate jazz and a wider genre called American roots music including everything from jazz, blues, folk, big band and bluegrass. Vocalists croon torch songs while musicians jam on guitar, double bass, horn and the piano, which Smith says he acquired by trading a bottle of cognac.
Despite their efforts to preserve the past, from mixing vintage cocktails to promoting old-school musicians, Smith and Somphonphakdy have actually created a venue to inspire the future of the First Coast’s creative culture.
And that’s certainly worth toasting the green fairy.
By Jamie Rich | Photography by Tracey Williams
Local Experts - Dining