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No signs announce the presence of Downtown Atlanta’s resident speakeasy; the only hint of its existence is a displaced red phone booth. The phone within is functional, but those in the know enter a secret code onto its dial pad, causing the booth’s back wall to swing open into an exclusive cigar and cocktail bar where patrons can step back 100 years.
Named for its antique, 2000-pound iron entrance point and calling card, the Red Phone Booth will not only debut a second location in Buckhead at 3242 Peachtree Road Suite 3242-C by this June but will become a franchise. Owner Stephen de Haan told What Now Atlanta that four more Red Phone Booths will open throughout the country this year, and that he intends to bring the forgotten reverie of prohibition to further locations.
The inspiration for the Red Phone Booth came in the 90s, long before its first location opened at 17 Andrew Young International Blvd NE, and even before de Haan opened his previous award-winning ventures in Atlanta, including Andrew’s Upstairs, Cellar 56, Stout Irish Sports Pub, Czar Ice Bar, Prohibition, Improv Comedy Club, East Andrew’s and Stillhouse Craft Burgers and Moonshine.
“I originally went to school at Georgia Tech and could not find a passion for computer science, so I became a bartender [at T.G.I. Fridays]. While visiting my Grandfather in Northern Minnesota, I said, ‘Grandpa, can I make you a cocktail,'” said de Haan, recalling his inspiration for the Red Phone Booth concept. “He was a Tennessee Squire, owning his one square inch of Jack Daniels Distillery… he wanted a Jack and water, so I made him a perfect T.G.I. Friday’s Jack and water — he took a sip out of it and spit it out on the floor, grabbed me by the ear and walked me to his boathouse. He told me ‘in order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’re from.'”
De Haan’s grandfather, W.J. “Bill” Boortz, presented him with a leather-bound book of cocktails from 1941 entitled “Here’s How”; the correct formulation of a Jack and water, he said, consists of three fingers of Jack Daniels and three ice cubes.
“That cocktail book, that knowledge coupled with the fact that [my grandfather] was a cigar smoker and a pharmacist during prohibition, providing whiskey for medicinal purposes, [was where the concept originated] — Red Phone Booth is a homage to my grandfather.”
De Haan went on to become the seventh-ranked flair bartender world-wide, and no corners are cut in the making of the Red Phone Booth’s prize-winning cocktails — as was customary in the 1920s, ice cubes are chipped from 300-pound blocks of ice, and all juices are freshly-squeezed onsite. The period accuracy extends to details past the club’s turn-of-the-(last)-century menu, which consists of an extensive bourbon, whiskey, scotch and Japanese whiskey selection. When other restaurants were implementing touchless menus that could be viewed on patrons’ cell phones by scanning QR-codes, for example, de Haan found a more period-appropriate way to minimize contact.
“QR codes didn’t exist 100 years ago — our goal is to transport you mentally and almost physically back in time,” explained de Haan. “When we came out of COVID, having a physical menu was important to us. We researched how our library was disinfecting books, [and now] we have hundreds of menus that we rotate out on different days of the week, so guests can have a physical menu to touch in their hand and still have that tactile experience and still feel that sense of normalcy.”
In 2016 the first Red Phone Booth opened its doors and opened a second location in Nashville in late 2019. Since, the two eateries have earned write-ups in Eater Atlanta, Eater Nashville, Creative Loafing, Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Snob. Like the two existing restaurants, Atlanta’s half of de Haan’s new Buckhead 11,000 square-foot space will accommodate Amalfi Pizza. In Georgia, Amalfi is the only pizzeria acknowledged by the “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana,” a designation extended by a board of pizza makers in Naples assuring that a pizzeria adheres to their standards. Before Amalfi’s and the Red Phone Booth first opened, Amalfi founders, Stephen de Haan and Greg Grant, moved with their wives to the Bay of Naples for approximately a month, learning proper pizza-making techniques at Pizzeria Matozzi and Pizzeria da Attilio, restaurants established in the late 1800s. However, de Haan told What Now Atlanta, opening a pizzeria within the building wasn’t originally his plan for the space.
“When we were exploring locations originally in Atlanta in 2016, as we entered the walkway to what is now Amalfi, we felt as if we were transported to the streets of Italy, where [my wife Sheri and I] were engaged 21 years ago. It was this feeling that led us to our search to learn the craft of Neapolitan pizza.”
A few additional pasta dishes and a specialty pizza will be added to the new Amalfi’s menu upon its concurrent opening with the new Red Phone Booth. De Haan said that their beverage menu will be extended to include a generous selection of Italian wines (and one stand-alone American cabernet). The restaurant’s revamped cocktail menu will consist of mixed drinks inspired by de Haan and his wife’s trips to the Amalfi coast of Italy, which inspired the eatery’s name.
At the Red Phone Booth, only two of the menu’s 47 pages are dedicated to food items. Eighteen of those pages, however, detail the history and makeup of cocktails first devised between 1823 and the 1980s. Some, like mint juleps, Dark and Stormy’s, palomas and sazerac, may ring a bell for patrons. Others are still classic but lesser-known, like Wimbledon tennis favorite “Pimm’s Cup,” made with a gin base and a secret mixture of herbs and liquers; the “Ramos Fizz,” a spin on a classic Tom Collins adding egg whites and orange water; and the “Horse’s Neck,” made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, ginger ale and garnish shaped into the silhouette of a horse’s head.
The only cocktail on the menu that deviates from the otherwise-fixed price of $13, also the Red Phone Booth’s most popular drink, is their $15 old-fashioned — each order of the drink is hand-smoked with hickory wood. Spirits on the menu’s “pharmacy” section, however, range widely between $13 to a $25,000 bottle of 140th anniversary Remi Martin Louis XIII Black Pearl.
Each entry on the club’s 14-page cigar menu is elaborated with detailed tasting notes. The selection, de Haan said, is curated by club members and staff who are always on the hunt for new and highly-rated fermented tobacco products.
In May of this year, the Red Phone Booth installed a state-of-the-art air-purification system, which uses the same needlepoint bipolar ionization technology as Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, before reopening after a COVID-spurred closure. With twice the space of its other locations, the new Red Phone Booth will have an even more efficient system, using 10 air purifiers outfitted to clean 2,500 cubic feet per minute in addition to a Direct Fresh Outdoor system able to purify 6,000 cubic feet of air per minute. Air throughout the building, including inside Amalfi’s, will be filtered every two-and-a-half minutes. The system is not just in place for sanitary reasons — with 150 cigars varieties sold at the Red Phone Booth, de Haan said that air filtration is crucial to facilitate enjoyment for both smokers and non-smokers, who he said “can come in and have a good time without smelling like a bunch of cigars.”
All couches and seating areas within operational and future Red Phone Booth locations are placed 8 feet apart to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, said de Haan, and all of the establishment’s surfaces are doused regularly with a healthcare-grade 30-plus day disinfectant. Red Phone Booth locker members (the establishment is already taking applications for memberships, which also includes a personal staff-stocked cigar locker with an engraved gold nameplate, at its upcoming location here) and can reserve space at the establishment beforehand, and large groups can sequester themselves in the “Mafia Kitchen,” a secret event space within the hidden club.
Opening a location in Buckhead, said de Haan, is like returning home — before opening his score of Atlanta businesses, the restauranteur cut his teeth bartending at the Tavern at Phipps. He always intended to open a Red Phone Booth location in the neighborhood, just as he had always intended to franchise the speakeasy’s concept (which he told What Now Atlanta that he trademarked on the day that the business opened). However, the club’s flagship location isn’t going anywhere: “that’s where the Red Phone Booth started, [and] we’re very proud to be a part of Downtown Atlanta.”