At the ripe old age of two, Ferndale's Oakland Art Novelty Company certainly feels like an elder in the local speakeasy and craft cocktail scene. As the concept of nominally secret, high-end cocktail lounges spreads around the region (see: Lock & Key, Sugar House), Oakland owner Sandy Levine is careful about running full force with the prohibition angle even as period-dressed waiters wandered around a recent media event highlighting two years of business.
"We certainly don't want to take away anyone's fun when they come here," Levine said in an interview with Eater Detroit. "But the speakeasy idea will come and go. Sustaining the novelty aspect is the least of our concerns."
Levine opened the Oakland on Nine Mile in downtown Ferndale in July of 2011. From the beginning, when he drafted the first business plan back in 2010, he was always primarily focused on bringing high-end craft cocktails to a regional market that lacked them, he said.
"I've been surprised with how adventurous people are," Levine said.
Unlike speakeasy-style bars in New York City and other large metropolitan regions that require reservations and are actually hidden,the Oakland's front door faces the downtown district and only requires reservations when the bar is busy or on New Year's Eve — an open concept that Levine said he appreciates.
"Being under the radar definitely helps us a lot," Levine said. "But we've found that when people come here, they usually know what they're getting. The last thing we want to do is disappoint people."
What the Oakland does well is amplify the act of drinking. A dark, dimly-lit space with an eclectic collection of couches and armchairs makes for a decidedly timeless atmosphere, occasionally brought to flashy light by the flaming cocktails assembled at the bar.
Bartender Shane Bang (McGrath), who is set to compete in a national Bombay Sapphire cocktail competition in Las Vegas next month, admitted that some of the flames are a bit extravagant.
"Some of these drinks don't need the flame," McGrath said, lighting a sprinkle of cinnamon over a frothy drink. "It's more for the show of it."
That mix of high-end drink and low-end flair leads to a frothy mix of clientele at the Oakland. The space's apparent exclusivity lends an extravagant air to a new customer, while longtime locals have made the bar a kind of neighborhood hangout, Levine said.
"When we started, it was a more neighborhood place, and now we're headed back to that," Levine said. "On the list for the second anniversary party's first seating, there were only three people I needed to write last names for. I know these people — they live in the neighborhood, they come here all the time."
Detroit hasn't exactly hit peak speakeasy yet, and there's always room for more craft cocktail bars. Whatever direction the region moves as it continues to pour out pricey drinks, the Oakland looks poised to capitalize on that change. They'll have just the fiery, fancy drink to suit the mood — prohibition-themed or not.
· The Oakland Art Novelty Company [Official]