From Prohibition to pandemic: A Long Island speakeasy 100 years in the making

Long Island speakeasy
Bartenders Richard Brace, left, and Robert Teed busy preparing Charlotte’s Speakeasy in Farmingdale for opening this past spring. The bar was a speakeasy back in the 1920s, and it is once again. // Photo by Megan Naftali/Long Island Advocate

By Megan Naftali

Part five in a series featuring stories that appeared in the 2022 edition of Pulse, the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication’s annual student-created magazine, titled this year as Pass the Plate. Pick up your copy at the Herbert School.

At first glance, you would never know what lies below. An inconspicuous bookshelf in the back of a frozen yogurt shop has the ability to transport you back a century in time. A small statue bust on the right side of the bottom shelf stands between you and history.

You pull the bust forward, the door to the past opens, and the first thing you see is the original tin wall covering from the 1920s and a staircase leading you to a speakeasy, a secret bar created during Prohibition, now known as Charlotte’s Speakeasy.

You walk down the stairs and suddenly hear the distinct sound of jazz music. Your heart beats along to the rhythm of the smooth sounds. Your excitement hits a high when you spot the bar to the right, because for one night you are escaping reality for a moment you will never forget.

Prohibition began in the United States on Jan. 17, 1920, under the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. In 2020, a global pandemic erupted, almost exactly 100 years after the start of Prohibition.

“It was very difficult at the height of Covid-19; even when we were allowed to open, the restrictions were so stringent that we were losing money every night that we were open,” said Nick DeVito, co-owner of Charlotte’s Frozen Yogurt and Charlotte’s Speakeasy in Farmingdale. “People said to us, ‘You are a speakeasy, just sneak everybody in there,’ but the State Liquor Authority perhaps was not as good humored as the police officers back in the 1920s.”

Charlotte’s Speakeasy is owned and operated by brothers Nick and John DeVito, who bought the space not knowing the rich history of their new establishment. When the real estate agent took them on a tour, they entered through the cellar doors in the backyard, the only way to get into the speakeasy at the time. Unsure of what was down there, the real estate agent suggested they use the space for storage. The DeVito brothers didn’t know what that space would be yet, but they knew it was destined for greater things.

A Pineapple Express mocktail crafted by Robert Teed. Ingredients include coconut sorbet, pineapple juice, lime juice, simple syrup and ginger beer. // Photo by Megan Naftali/Long Island Advocate

“When we came in, we cut [a] hole in the floor, we put the staircase in, but we didn’t do anything with it,” DeVito said. “Then the mayor, [Ralph Ekstrand], shows up one day and asks how [we] like having a speakeasy in [our] basement. I said, ‘We like that. What are you talking about?”

After realizing they owned a Prohibition Era speakeasy, the brothers decided to restore the space to what it once was, this time legally.

“We got the [Farmingdale] Village officials and the mayor to come downstairs before we spent any money and [to make sure we could],” DeVito said. “The mayor said, ‘We love this idea. This is historic, it’s cultural, it will bring people from all over, and it’s a bit of Long Island history.’”

The speakeasy, now with a modern twist, cherishes the past by highlighting elements that were left behind. Wood columns that used to support the ceiling now hold up your drinks, as the wood was used to make the top of the bar counter, according to DeVito. Additionally, each menu has a piece of the original tin wall covering on it so everyone who grasps a menu holds a little bit of the history.

Photos from the 1920s plaster two of the speakeasy’s walls, and as it turns out, they are actual photos of the DeVito brothers’ relatives, combining the speakeasy’s history with their family history.

“There’s a photo of my grandparents on the boardwalk in Long Beach 1920, my grandmother in Bethpage 1917 and my grandmother in front of the 1929 Ford,” DeVito said. “My mother’s name is Charlotte, my grandmother’s name is Charlotte, as well. We named the frozen yogurt store after my mother and the speakeasy after my grandmother.”

“There’s a photo of my grandparents on the boardwalk in Long Beach 1920, my grandmother in Bethpage 1917 and my grandmother in front of the 1929 Ford. My mother’s name is Charlotte, my grandmother’s name is Charlotte, as well. We named the frozen yogurt store after my mother and the speakeasy after my grandmother.”

Nick DeVito, co-owner of Charlotte’s Frozen Yogurt and Charlotte’s Speakeasy

Drinks served at the speakeasy are not just reminiscent of the drinks served in the 1920s, but they are those drinks, according to Robert Teed, a bartender at Charlotte’s Speakeasy.

“We are very fortunate that since about 2009, there has been a cocktail renaissance, and a lot of companies have brought back what would have been discontinued spirits,” Teed said. “For that reason, and because of people like Dave Wondrich, who is a cocktail historian, we have access to the recipes that were used at the time and oftentimes the spirits that were being used, so to the best of our ability with the ingredients at hand, we are actually recreating those same cocktails.”

Some cocktails offered at the speakeasy include the “French 75,” a mix of gin or cognac, lemon, sugar and champagne and the “Mary Pickford,” named after an actress in the 1920s, with aged white rum, maraschino liquor, pineapple, pomegranate, Peychaud’s bitters and lime. Ten other cocktails are listed on the menu, along with wine and beer offerings.

Bartending at the start of the pandemic was difficult, as food was allowed but alcoholic beverages were not. It made Teed feel as though his craft was lesser.

“Fortunately enough,” he said, “it wasn’t completely like [Prohibition] because people were allowed to make to-go cocktails, so the industry held out for a while, but at a point, they stopped allowing to-go cocktails and when that happened it was 25% capacity. The people who were making serious money bartending now have very limited ability to keep the lights on and pay their rent,” Teed said. “What happened because of it is a lot of people pared down their staff so places [were] not run as efficiently as they want to. It’s more stress for everybody working, and the product sometimes suffers, but like fine dining, people genuinely care so you have people who still strive for that higher [end] result, but to an extent, it’s a bit reminiscent of [Prohibition].”

 Exterior of DeMarco’s Department Store circa 1920s. // Photo courtesy the Farmingdale-Bethpage Historical Society and the Farmingdale Public Library Digital Photograph Collection

Before the DeVito brothers renovated and reopened the speakeasy with the frozen yogurt shop as a front, Frank DeMarco owned DeMarco’s Department Store. No official documents show that a speakeasy existed at that Farmingdale location, since it was illegal at the time to have one and no police raids were documented. DeMarco’s store is estimated to have opened in the 1920s, and DeMarco was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, according to Toniann Contarino, a librarian at the Farmingdale Public Library.

When Charlotte’s Speakeasy is open for business, DeVito likes to show people photographs of the outside of the building from the 1920s and show them the old escape route. On the way to the escape route, there is a table with mementos from the past and objects that people have gifted to the speakeasy. One such item includes a bottle from the shipwrecked Lizzie D.

A bottle from the shipwrecked Lizzie D, gifted to Charlotte’s Speakeasy by an unnamed donor. // Photo by Megan Naftali/Long Island Advocate

The Lizzie D was a tugboat that left New York Harbor in 1922 to allegedly assist a distressed schooner and vanished in a strong storm. There is speculation that the Lizzie D carried illegal liquor. The ship was found in 1977 when divers discovered the ship with crates with hundreds of bottles of Kentucky bourbon, Scotch whiskey and Canadian rye, about 15 miles off the coast of Long Island, according to the Mob Museum.

“What are you giving this to me for?” DeVito said.

“Look, about 100 years ago, this was on its way to you and it missed by [a few] miles. I wanted to be the one to finally deliver it to where it was supposed to go,” said the man who gave DeVito the bottle.