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Dress, dance evoke earlier era at Albany bar

Dress, dance evoke earlier era at Albany bar

'You come in here, you have a good time and you don’t have to mind your Ps and Qs'
Dress, dance evoke earlier era at Albany bar
Xara Wilde of Albany dances with Vance Catapang of Troy at Swing Night at Speakeasy 518 on Howard Street in Albany.
Photographer: peter r. barber/gazette photographer

Emmanuel Treski wants to take Capital Region residents back a century or so. 

“Think about what you see when you see a speakeasy in the movies,” Treski said. 

Hidden behind a nondescript door, there’s a jazz band playing for people who are dressed to the nines, Lindy hopping on a dance floor or sharing a drink or two by the bar. 

Cell phones are absent, and along with them the pervasive presence of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the other platforms that people get lost in through their brightly lit screens. There’s no stopping to document what’s going on, there’s only living it. 

As the bar manager of Speakeasy 518, Treski strives to bring this scene to life in present-day Albany. 

“You come in here, you have a good time and you don’t have to mind your Ps and Qs,” Treski said. 

Treski grew up in Oneonta but has been living in Albany for the past nine years. After studying culinary arts, he worked at a few different bars, including the Speakeasy, before returning late last year as the bar manager. 

Speakeasy 518 opened in 2011 in the basement of the City Beer Hall. Owned by Kenny Schachter and Kaelin Ballinger, it's known for classic cocktails and its prohibition-era ambiance. While eight years in business isn't young for a bar, it doesn’t seem quite old enough to warrant the magnitude of the lore surrounding the Speakeasy, most of which Treski said isn’t true. 

“We’re not a secret establishment,” Treski said, “People have this idea that the Speakeasy is this reservation only club, that they need a password.” 

While that’s not the case, the Speakeasy does have a few vague policies which help the establishment maintain its schtick. For instance, there is somewhat of a dress code. 

“That is something we used to pretty keen about when the place first opened. I think after being open for five or six years, the ideas of regulars dressing up has become less of a focus,” Treski said.  

But don’t get carried away thinking that yoga pants and flip-flops are going to make the cut. 

Though you don’t have to go all out, dressing in flapper attire or in bow ties and Panama hats, to some degree, dressing up is preferred. Pull out that shift dress and string of pearls or that pressed shirt and tie and your look should fit the bill.    

“We’ve actually had people tell us they are not coming back because other people aren’t dressed up, but I’ve told them two things: one, the idea is for you to dress up and enjoy your time, not to be influenced or bothered because somebody else isn’t dressed up, and two, we judge our guests by their candor inside our establishment, not how they are dressed while inside,” Treski said.    

Another aspect of the Speakeasy that seems unclear to people is this idea of membership. There’s a page or two on Reddit filled with users asking questions about it. And there’s a good reason for the confusion. 

When the place first opened, management started giving tokens out to regulars, indicating that they were members of the Speakeasy. But Treski said there was no clear benefit to being a member. He’s working to change that, offering exclusive cocktail lists, new tasting spirits, and no waiting to get in.  

But he’s also trying to bring back some of the Speakeasy charm by revamping the aspects of the place that made it stand out in the first place. 

Full Swing
People have been fox trotting or Lindy hopping to the live music on Saturday nights since the Speakeasy opened its doors. But when first Treski got to the Speakeasy, he started regular weeknight swing dancing hours, which included free classes with some of the dedicated swing dancers in the Capital Region. Recently, he’s revamped swing nights by switching them to busier Thursday evenings with the help of Albany Swing Dancers and people like Matt Mann and Carrie Wojenski.

They teach on a monthly basis on Thursday nights starting around 9 p.m. They’re a part of the swing dance community which has been growing over the last few years. 

“It’s a wonderful community, better than it’s been in years,” Mann said. 

Dancing at the Speakeasy is a good excuse for that community to get together and to show others what swing is all about. 

“There’s always new dancers and new patrons who take the beginner lesson as well,” Wojenski said. 

They teach mainly East Coast swing or jitterbug, sometimes Charleston or Balboa, which is a faster swing dance. 

“Our goal is to give them three or four moves they can learn fairly quickly so they can enjoy themselves on the dance floor,” Mann said. 

The dance floor is small, especially when they have upwards of 30 people dancing, but they push the couches and rugs back. 

“If there’s overflow, we dance all the way to the door,” Mann said. 

And it certainly does overflow, which fits in well with Treski’s vision. He imagines a place where people aren’t afraid to dance, to get loud and rambunctious. Because there’s a strict no cell phone policy, Treski said people don’t have to worry about having their photo taken and shared all over social media. They also don’t have the choice to spend half their time there posting selfies or photos of their drinks on Instagram. 

Beyond swing dancing on Thursday nights, there’s usually a live band and dancing on Saturday evenings. Adding to the ambiance, when the live band goes on break, a jazz house dancer by the name of Xara Wilde takes over the floor. 

“The jazz musicians who propelled the swing era onto public consciousness are an infinite source of inspiration for me. The chance to pay homage to (and in doing so, ultimately help preserve) that rich history through dance is a humbling and energizing endeavor,” Wilde said. 

Mix it up

Treski credits Speakeasy owners Schachter and Ballinger for their flexibility and willingness to let the staff build off of their initial idea for the establishment. 

“I cannot tell you the creative freedom I have when I’m there. I have the opportunity to create classic, old-school drinks that other establishments might [turn down],” Treski said. 

He’s also been inviting local bartenders to flex their own mixology muscles, gathering a few together each week for mixologist competitions.  

“It’s essentially ‘Iron Chef’ or ‘Chopped,’” Treski said. Every Wednesday night, he brings in representatives from different distilleries to talk about their process and product. Then, the representative announces a special ingredient, which two competing bartenders have to use to make four of the same cocktails within 15 minutes. Judges decide the winner based on the overall content of the drink, from [the] first sip to [the] last sip, and the presentation. Whoever wins gets a prize, along with bragging rights and can go on to be in the following week’s competition, provided “they don’t have to work,” Treski said. 

Though the prohibition-era was nearly a century ago, the Speakeasy 518 is finding ways to keep the time period alive. 

TRESKI ON DRINKS: 

Toughest drink to make:
Ramos Gin Fizz: “Technically speaking you’ll spend like an hour, making this drink,” Treski said. 
The ingredients list alone is daunting, with egg whites, heavy cream, orange blossom water, rose water, lemon juice and lime juice.  

Oddest drink request:
“I had someone ask me for a cocktail that tasted like the ocean.” 

Favorite drink to make: 
Negroni cocktail: “The Negroni was the first cocktail I had that I thought tasted like a cocktail should. The first sip was sweet in the middle and overly bitter at the end. Then the second sip, it started to come together. The third sip there was a harmony, by the fourth sip there was a symphony in the glass and the by the fifth sip, I needed another cocktail,” Treski said.

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