A speakeasy-style basement bar in downtown Phoenix? To be honest, it's been done.
But that hasn't stopped dozens of people from lining up outside Melinda's Alley, the new cocktail spot at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel, every weekend since the hush-hush bar opened early this year. And if you ask the team behind the bar's concept and execution why that is, they'll tell you it's because they've tapped into something Phoenicians have long craved: history.
Located in the hotel's basement, Melinda's Alley's raw concrete walls are the original foundation of the Adams Hotel, which burned down in 1910 but was rebuilt shortly after in the same spot. Along with vintage-style decor and overhead red lighting, the bar looks to transport drinkers back in time, to when Melinda's Alley, under which the bar sits, may have been tied to Phoenix's red light district. There's no record of the Melinda for whom the alley and bar take their names, but the area's proximity to what was once one of downtown's seedier neighborhoods has offered inspiration.
Dustin Bolin, senior bartender at the hotel and the mastermind behind the Melinda's Alley menu, says the speakeasy setting makes a perfect backdrop to bring a new kind of cocktail experience to downtown.
"When you come to Melinda's Alley, you have to be really ready for an adventure."
For the most part, the bar's menu, which has featured everything from the smokey/sweet scotch-based Smoke and Lips to a classic Cuba Libre, changes every week — and it doesn't offer much in the way of explanations. Instead of listing ingredients, Bolin's menu just offers a name and base spirit, a move he says is intended to encourage conversation. "We want you to engage with the bartender," he says.
You'll usually find five or six drinks on the speakeasy's menu, and Bolin's been offering what he calls a "roulette-style Old Fashioned," which features combinations like rum with tiki bitters to riff on the classic cocktail. Already, he says he's getting requests to put drinks permanently on the Melinda's Alley menu — which he's reluctant to do, though he may bring drinks back for return appearances — but one cocktail has moved from the basement bar's menu to the most permanent list available upstairs at the Icon Lounge. And as far as food, you'll have just one option: house chips with a beer cheese dip.
The Agavallet (a portmanteau of the drink's two main ingredients, agave-based tequila and Fernet Vallet) features Forteleza reposado, Mexican fernet (sweeter than the more common Italian Fernet Branca), ginger sryup, lime juice, and strawberry puree. With a mint sprig to underscore the herbal qualities of the Fernet and tequila, it's an easy-drinking concoction that's neither too sweet nor too abrasive.
With just two bartenders working to serve the 49-person capacity bar at any given time, the experience at Melinda's Alley is in some ways the antithesis of what you'll get at bigger bars — even high-volume basement speakeasy bars like Valley Bar, found just across Central. It's a place to come to start off your night slow, with a good drink in hand while you decide where to venture next, or to end your evening on the downtown streets in a place that's quieter but still buzzy and not boring.
"The attitude here, I think, is more like a neighborhood bar," Bolin says. "But with cocktails that have real thought put into it."
Down the line, the Renaissance team hopes to plan events at Melinda's Alley — perhaps industry nights or guest bartending appearances — but they expect the bar to remain open on Friday and Saturday nights for now. And the cash-only rule? That's staying in place, too.
You can find Melinda's Alley south of Monroe Street and north of Adams on the east side of Central Avenue. Look for the red light bulb (and the line). The bar opens at 9 on Friday and Saturday nights.