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Ken’s — a not-so-secret speakeasy

12/2/2020

Bartender Joe serves up prohibition-style drinks at Ken’s in downtown Des Moines’ East Village.

As I walked down the dark staircase to Des Moines’ newest speakeasy, I expected a muscular guy decked in a pinstripe suit with a cocked fedora hat, questioning me, ‘What’s the password, blondie?’ Instead, I got a masked guy, handing me a menu, asking me what my drink preference was. Easy!

Ken’s is billed as a “not-so-secret speakeasy” and opened up in late summer in the basement of the Iowa Taproom located off E. Third Street by the owners of Full Court Press (FCP).

The name comes from a prominent Des Moines society bootlegger from the 1920s, Kenneth Sonderleiter.

Inside, Ken’s décor expertly lends to the secretive bootlegging era with low ceilings and brick walls and formerly served as basement storage for FCP’s bar supplies. Photos of gangsters, whiskey barrels and other flapper-era items adorn the room. A vintage pay telephone might be used to dial up the operator to report gangster activity. A clock behind the bar, stuck on 47 seconds past 5 o’clock, coincides with what time the bar opens.

Prep Iowa

Don, one of FCP’s owners, is a repurpose/antique enthusiast. He created the vintage look. The privacy booth dividers (chosen before COVID but now ideal) are made from old elevator doors from the former Equitable Building on Locust Street. Wall lamp sconces in the booths are reconfigured elevator lights. The bar was an old high school auditorium stage. Long tables made from cement truck trailer wood are uniquely redone.

Upstairs, the Iowa Taproom offers local food, beer and spirits, while Ken’s also offers Iowa breweries tap pulls. A bar shelf dedicated to Iowa’s spirits includes several dozen whiskeys and bourbons.

The drink menu is prohibition style with classic cocktails, such as Old Fashioned, Manhattan, Bee’s Knees, Harvey Wallbanger and more.

Bartender Joe says the drinks — served shaken or stirred — are simple.

“We serve drinks prohibition style,” he explains. “It’s to the point, but effective in the delivery.”

House liquor includes Cedar Ridge, but you can choose from more than five dozen other legal spirits. Drink prices start at $6, and the most expensive pour is the Whistle Pig, $30.

Food is available from the Iowa Taproom and includes appetizers and snack mixes —munch on the caramel popcorn or try the Iowa ham balls.

A unique playlist curated by FCP’s social media rep means you will hear more than roaring 1920s music, “which might drive the bartenders crazy.” Low volume music means patrons can discuss deals over jazz, ragtime, Michael Bublé, Lady Gaga and Frank Sinatra.

As there’s no Ken’s sign outside on the street level, the basement is down to the right of the Iowa Taproom entrance. And if anyone asks, tell ’em CITYVIEW sent you. ♦

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