The authenticity of Greenville’s first, modern speakeasy, Vault & Vator, which opens Tuesday at 5 p.m., is evident from the get-go. As in, just trying to locate the entrance is a challenge.
It’s tucked away on the Falls Park side of the Edward Jones Building, 655 S. Main St., on the basement level. (And ladies, if you’re wearing heels, the walk down the steep hill from Main Street is a bit precarious. You’ve been warned.)
Owned by Joe and Darlene Clarke of American Grocery Restaurant, Vault & Vator was designed specifically to showcase the considerable skills of their bartender, Kirk Ingram, and respect for cocktails of the prohibition period, The Golden Age of Cocktails.
The Clarkes and Ingram have been talking for months about their desire to create an authentic, respectful bar environment that is still accessible. Those attending this weekend’s preview events agree: They achieved it.
On the entrance gate is a list of house rules: no cellphones; no baseball hats, sweats, or flip-flops; no standing; no cosmos, shots, light beer, or Red Bull; no disrespectful behavior. In summary, have some respect.
Cellphone usage was allowed for the preview weekend, though we did try to be respectful of the unplugged environment when snapping a few photos. That rule will be strictly enforced moving forward, as will the no-standing rule. When all the seats are filled, incoming guests will be placed on a wait list and notified via text when a seat is available, and parties will not be seated unless all members are present. No reservations. No exceptions.
Upon entering the vestibule, a thick, light-blocking curtain must be pulled back to enter the bar, revealing almost nothing visible until your eyes adjust. Those arriving after dark will likely not have the 5-minute adjusting time we experienced at 6:30 p.m. on a very sunny day.
The Edison-bulb lights are few but provide adequate lighting. The thump of the stand-up bass, with the beat of brushes on a snare and the melody of the clarinet, even though playing only through speakers, creates an atmosphere you could imagine to be exactly as it would have been almost a century ago. If only there were space for a live three-piece combo.
We slid into our half-moon booth and felt the faux alligator-skin table covering, and marveled at Joe’s handmade zinc-top bar. The mismatched cut glassware and china dishes used are vintage finds reminiscent of Grandmother’s china cabinet.
Once we could make out letters, we perused the small-plate menu with such offerings as classic shrimp cocktail, a nosh plate with olives, spiced nuts, and house pickles. I irreverently referred to the nuts as “crack” when offering them to our fellow imbibers. They’re addictive.
Of the pickles, the green tomatoes were the table favorite — unexpectedly sweet and briny. The cocktail sauce was the right balance of horseradish without causing sinus trouble. Darlene says it received rave reviews during the preview.
For something a little more filling, sliced Iberico de bellota at market price is also available. (It’s Spanish prosciutto from pigs fed only hazelnuts during the final period.)
But we didn’t come for the small plates, though they provided a tasteful backdrop for each of our cocktails.
Guests will notice an absence of vodka cocktails, and instead discover a world of gin, mezcal, bourbon, cognac, and dark rum, all mixed so intentionally you might catch yourself enjoying a drink you wouldn’t have thought to order anywhere else.
Our table started with That’s Amari (Bulleit bourbon, Lucano amaro, orange curacao, kirsch, lemon, egg white, simple syrup) and Aviation (Death’s Door gin, Luxardo maraschino, crème de violette, lemon), so named for its light blue tinge. Both were well received, with the favorite, because of its uniqueness, being Aviation.
We then ordered Vow of Silence (mezcal, chartreuse, cacao nib-infused Luxardo maraschino liqueur, lime, molé bitters), Pimm’s Garden (Pimm’s #1, cucumber juice, sherbet [house made], ginger tea, mint), and Chef Goes ‘Nanners (banana-infused dark rum, pineapple rum, dry orange curacao, allspice dram, lime, cinnamon, bark syrup).
All were delicious and unique, but the clear favorite of the night was Vow of Silence, named for the rumor about green chartreuse and the French monks who created it.
The hour-and-a-half flew by and before we knew it, we paid our tab, and were ushered back out into the 21st century.