An intimate, European-style “speakeasy” serving wine, cocktails and a few French hors d’oeuvres is planned for a blighted building on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District.
Banks McClintock and his wife, Julie Simpson, bought the building at 1330 Magazine St. in 2003. Built in the 1850s, the building has a long history as a business, both as a former Italian grocery and as a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
“You can still see handwritten signage on the walls that says ‘No Dancing’ and old arrows that point to the men’s room and women’s room,” Simpson told neighbors at a meeting of the Coliseum Square Association last week.
Besides acting and writing, McClintock’s background includes work as a bartender and server, and Simpson’s is in design. They plan a full restoration of the building, incorporating elements from their favorite locations in New York, Los Angeles and Europe. They will preserve an apartment and use part of the downstairs for the brasserie.
“We hope to work from this space so it feels like you have stepped into a time capsule from the Prohibition era with all of its beauty and eccentricities,” Simpson wrote in a letter provided to the association before the meeting. “Period-correct antique furnishings from France, period-original Beaux Arts lighting, plaster work and even the glassware and cutlery will all be of the era.
“Our hope is that everyone who comes in would feel as if they have just discovered a hidden secret.”
The speakeasy’s working name is tentatively “The M,” McClintock said, a reference to its location on Magazine near Melpomene Street and also to its ownership.
The couple said they envision the speakeasy as a place to stop on the way out for the evening, so its hours would be limited, from early afternoon to about 9:30 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. It would seat only 25 to 30 people, they said.
The current zoning for the building would allow a restaurant, but Simpson and McClintock said they are seeking a conditional use permit for a cocktail lounge. Without having the expense of a full kitchen and enough space to seat diners, they can create a smaller space and focus more on the ambiance, they said.
“As counterintuitive as it sounds, a liquor license is a much less intense usage,” McClintock said. “The cost of the restoration is considerable. We want that money to go into what people can actually have a tactile feel for.”
While the members of the Coliseum Square Association know Simpson through her own membership on the board, they still had a number of questions about that plan, mostly about the possible future of the space.
If the current owners end their involvement for some reason, the next owner could operate the kind of dive bar that in years past attracted violence to the area, to the serious detriment of the Lower Garden District, some neighbors said.
“As long as you guys are in direct control of it, I have greater faith in it,” association member Tom Gault said. “But once the liquor license is there, it takes a monumental effort to get rid of a bad place, even a horrendous place with shootings.”
The expense of the restoration will make it unaffordable for any future dive-bar operator, the couple said. They also noted that they live with their young child within eyesight of the building and will operate the establishment themselves, so they do not have any plans for it to become a burden on the neighborhood.
As for parking, Simpson and McClintock said they hope to develop nearby vacant lots as buildings but with space for parking in the rear as needed. They do not, however, envision crowds at The M.
“We don’t even want signage on the building,” Simpson said. “That’s how secret and small we want it to be.”
The association voted 7-1 to support the application for a conditional use permit. The request will be heard first by the City Planning Commission and then the City Council. The owners hope to open next fall.