Review: The Bookstore Speakeasy

By now, if you’ve got friends that are part of the “in crowd” with the restaurant scene, you’ve heard of the Bookstore. News about this new bar has spread like wildfire, so much so that I’ve been hearing people all over town talk about it and I’ve been questioned about it a few times myself. So what’s the Bookstore all about? Well, the space on Adams Street in Bethlehem has a storied history in itself. Formerly The Grotto, an Italian restaurant, then converted into The Element, a small bar where an underage drinking bust went down about a year ago, it’s now home to the area’s first speakeasy-styled bar.

Let me sidetrack for a minute and discuss the speakeasy and cocktail scene in other cities versus the Lehigh Valley. Speakeasies are nothing new, with Milk & Honey in New York being the forerunner for the new era of cocktail bars. There’s been a recent resurgence in people actually caring about what they drink, from quality liquers to fresh ingredients, rare spirits, and long forgotten cocktails. Major cities are rife with all sorts of craft beer and serious cocktail lounges. Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley’s big brother to the south, is constantly recognized as one of the best craft beer cities in the world and has its fair share of quality cocktail lounges as well. Just recently, the owners of the famed Death & Co. speakeasy cocktail bar in New York opened the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Company in Philadelphia, featuring a dark atmosphere where quality cocktails are served and the swank/hipster crowd revels.

The Bookstore is the first taste of that the Lehigh Valley has seen. College-style douchery is usually the taste of most bars in the valley, opting for slutty clothing, bad DJs, and overpriced swill drinks rather than a serious sit-down bar where you can actually hold a conversation. As you approach The Bookstore, the only indication that there’s anything going on at the location is a neon open sign and a black door simply spraypaint-stenciled with “THE BOOKSTORE”. Upon entering you’re greeted with a tiny room jammed with bookshelves and old books. Depending on the time of night there may be someone in the room to greet you. If there’s not, you may be confused just as to what you’ve walked into until you see a slim black curtain perched between the bookshelves in the back corner. Open slipping behind the curtain you’re transported back into a 1920’s style speakeasy that just reeks of awesome.

Textured, extremely dark, and expertly themed, The Bookstore is a true gem. Books are stacked all over the place and make you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s private bar/library. If you’re there at the right time you’ll be serenaded by a trio working the clarinet, trumpet, and piano while singing authentic 1920’s music by Gershwin and the like. As you sit down at the bar lit by antique candleholders, you notice just how much work went into this place. A beautiful copper bar, a delightful old-style wood framed mirror, and an old cash register are just some of the accents that make The Bookstore just what it is.

I went early on a Saturday night, not long after their 5pm opening time so I could experience the bar without the rush of the crowd. I spoke with both the bartender and the owner for a brief period. The bartender, a knowledgeable young lady, was clad in a white button-down and bowtie, just like an authentic bartender used to dress. The cocktail menu featured various classic throwbacks, including: Twentieth Century, Manhattan, old fashioned, and a few others that were favorites in the 20s-40s. The beer menu is just as fantastic. Boasting a ton of different beers, from domestics to Belgians, divided by style and taste, there’s something here for everyone unless you’ve trained your palate to only enjoy Yuengling and Coors/Miller/Bud products. The beers on tap are just as fantastic. I had a Southern Tier Creme Brulee from the tap and it was served properly in a tulip-shaped beer glass and poured with perfection. I also indulged in an Old Fashioned, a Twentieth Century, and the Bookstore Cocktail (fashioned with Philadelphia’s ownBluecoat Gin, lemon, Akvavit, and bitters). All were fantastic and mixed with passion.

It’s the little things that can really improve a bar. The menu is pasted in the front of old books which are placed and left on the bar for viewing at any time (awesome idea). Upon ordering a drink you’re also served a highball of ice water, both of which are placed on a doily. You’re also given a small crucible of olives to enjoy with your tipple. Drinks are served properly, whether on the rocks, shaken, or in the case of my Old Fashioned, with a giant chunk of ice. For those not in-the-know, a large chunk of ice is more desireable in certain drinks because it melts slower than individual cubes, therefore watering your drink down properly.

The bartender was certainly knowledgeable and knew a few different drinks requested of patrons, but there were also some classics that she wasn’t aware of (such as The Bronx, and my request, a Ramos Gin Fizz.) Even though the bar sports an impressive selection of spirits and ingredients, there were still some things missing that really should’ve been there, such as creme de menthe (someone had ordered a Grasshopper but the bar was unable to accommodate).

The food from the lite fare menu was equally as excellent as the restaurant. A note for those who are looking to go early and beat the crowd, the kitchen service doesn’t start until 6PM. I ordered a mini lamb burger which came with chickpea fries and a raisin mustard dipping sauce. The burger was executed fantastically and had an absolutely fantastic gamey taste. The chickpea fries were also done very well, and provided for an interesting side. The raisin mustard sauce was fairly bland and tasteless, but that didn’t detract from the fries. The presentation of the food was also fantastic. [Ed note: An astute reader pointed out that the raisin mustard is on the burger, and the fries are served with a simple aioli, which why  there wasn’t much taste.]

The bartender was attentive remembered drink orders and always had suggestions and knowledge about what she was serving, which is very helpful for those who are new to craft beer (there’s no big name brands in the place) or serious cocktails. The service may have been just slightly slow at times as the bar was short handed, but I found my water being refilled as it was emptied and the service was very personal. You’ll want to note that this bar is not cheap. The quality and passion put into this place reflects in the prices. One beer on tap, two bottles of Moinette Blonde, and three cocktails rang up to the tune of $46, so plan your spending accordingly.

By the by, The Bookstore is definitely the new place to be in the Lehigh Valley. The word is definitely getting out early on in the bar’s life as evidenced by the absolutely jammed Friday and Saturday nights. People have been frequently been turned away due to the large crowds. If The Bookstore has this great of food, service and drinks this early in the game, it can only mean it will be even better as they get a hold on operating more efficiently. Check out The Bookstore…you won’t regret it.

Rating:

The Bookstore
336 Adams St, Bethlehem, PA
http://www.thebookstorespeakeasy.com

3 Comments

  1. Brews in the Valley News | The El Vee

    February 10, 2011 9:05 pm,

    […] The Bookstore has FINALLY updated its beer list after letting it go dormant since October 19th.  Even better?  They’ve got North Coast Old Stock on right now, which costs $23/bottle at Abe’s so this will be a cheaper way of trying out the 2010 release without plunking down for a bottle.  Or you can try it, fall in love with it, and then drop $23 for a bottle like I’m sure we will. […]

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