Food & DrinkFood Features

Backstage Lounge Pays Tribute to Prohibition-Era Speakeasies with a Twist

Savvas Punsalan, executive barman of Backstage Lounge. (Photo by Courtney Mihocik)

Walk through the barber shop, veer left, turn a corner and pick up the rotary phone. After a few rings, you’ll hear a voice on the other end say, “Backstage.” That’s how you know you’re in the right place.

Head southbound from Uptown and with the right clues, patrons can slip into the city’s best-kept secret: Backstage Lounge.

Operating as a speakeasy, Backstage Lounge quietly launched in January 2018. The decision to rely solely on word-of-mouth marketing to bring customers to the 1980s rock ‘n’ roll establishment was not made lightly.

Savvas Punsalan, executive barman at Backstage Lounge, is a longtime bartender in Charlotte, not to mention having owned and operated his share of local bars and restaurants. Once the Backstage idea was born in October 2017, Punsalan got right into discussions with the owners over how to make the venue a true speakeasy, unlike some places in town that market themselves as such.

“We like the idea of being called a lounge, but we really are a speakeasy. And to be a speakeasy, you don’t advertise,” Punsalan explained. “To be a speakeasy, you build something from the ground up by word-of-mouth and that’s what we decided to do.”

The organic following and lack of advertising is a nod to the true speakeasies of the 1920s that established themselves as bars and nightclubs during Prohibition in order to illegally sell alcohol to vetted, privy patrons. Some had entrances in cellars and basements, others were accessible through back-alley doors with a secret password.

Tequila old-fashioned available at the Charlotte speakeasy. (Photo by Rick Guedes)

Backstage Lounge doesn’t require patrons to whisper a password to a doorman through a peephole, and it does operate legally under North Carolina alcohol laws and regulations. But it still offers the atmosphere of secrecy and exclusivity that gives the feel of a 1920s speakeasy. The main difference? That ’80s classic rock playing over the speakers, and pictures of the era’s rockstars over every booth and even on the glassware.

“I envisioned these beautiful antique glasswares; something like, ‘What would Ozzy Osbourne have in his English cottage or manor?’” Punsalan said. “We love this rock ‘n’ roll thing, this classic rock thing.”

It’s an unexpected, albeit beautiful, pairing. The music matches the aethetic; dark wood, leather bar seats and heavy glasses give the experience a sophisticated level. But not so sophisticated that guests can’t relax and order a vodka soda if that’s what they’re feeling.

Punsalan moved to Charlotte in the mid-1990s and has been immersed in the restaurant and service industry here ever since. From first serving and bartending at 300 East, he moved to Cosmos Cafe and quickly rose in the ranks to head bartender. After “catching the bug” and deciding he wanted to own and operate an establishment, he partnered with a friend in 2001 to launch Steeple Lounge in the location where the Peculiar Rabbit is now.

Steeple closed a few years later, but Punsalan continued working in the service industry, consulting and assisting in opening other restaurants and designing beverage programs for restaurants like SouthPark Grill and the now-closed Block & Grinder.

Backstage’s drink menu can be intimidating, with its spicy palomas or “the fizzy one,” but Punsalan’s 20-plus years of experience lets him understand that not everyone is going to have the palate for that. 

“I don’t mind making anybody a vodka soda, enjoy whatever you want, I’ll make it for you,” he explained with a chuckle. “We’re not pretentious in that way at all. We have rock stars [on our walls] and things like that. We get it.”

Backstage Lounge also hosts DJs who get the crowd in the ’80s vibe with a vinyl-only turntable. Punsalan said the organic sound of a needle on vinyl brings another layer of 1980s culture into the speakeasy, and pairs with the organic origin of the drinks.

“To hear that sound that a vinyl record makes is kind of what we’re doing here with our cocktails. Everything’s handmade here, fresh juices, we make our own syrups here,” he elaborated. “We’re trying to be something a little bit special.”

While the quiet speakeasy-style cocktail bar has garnered enough attention over the past year to warrant lines out the door on the weekends, the staff still works to bring that feeling of exclusivity to patrons. That sometimes means turning folks away. If you’re looking to pop in for a quick drink on a bar-hopping spree, it’s best to leave Backstage Lounge off the list, even if you know how to find it.

Guests must call in on the phone to gain entry to Backstage Lounge. (Photo by Rick Guedes)

“Everything that happens in a cocktail and speakeasy bar is not a fast thing,” Punsalan said. “You don’t come to Backstage Lounge if you have a movie to get to. You don’t come to Backstage Lounge for a quick bite or drink. We want you to get immersed in a delicious craft cocktail.”

Once you find the joint and go through the motions needed to actually get to a table, you’re immediately served a complimentary punch to whet your appetite while you think over the menu. The style of punch changes daily, but it’s always served to whomever walks in.

On a recent Wednesday evening, the punch was fruity with a hint of rum while The Smiths and The Doors played through the speakers of the intimate and handsome establishment.

Over each booth in Backstage Lounge is a name of a fallen Charlotte establishment. The Pterodactyl, Amos’ Southend (which recently reopened), Double Door Inn and Tremont Music Hall each has its name etched above one of the intimate booths to the right of the door, bringing Charlotte culture into the lounge while blocking out the bustle of the city.

For all the atmosphere, aesthetic and accoutrement — not to mention the amazing cocktails — it would be easy to overlook the food menu. Don’t.

Punsalan has carefully crafted menu pairings that at first may seem off-the-wall, but marry together well. Caviar might usually pair with champagne, but at Backstage Lounge, it comes with vodka. Scotch is traditionally a partner to red meat, but Punsalan would rather pair it with a variety of chocolates.

Some cocktail bars may dress themselves up as speakeasies, but the over-hype and advertising or the snobbish nature of too-serious operators can turn people away when they’re looking for a laid-back place to have a cocktail and escape the busy cityscape. Backstage Lounge began its venture as a speakeasy, and over its past year in business, despite location reveals from the press and long lines out the door, it’s remained true to what the owners and Punsalan sought to become.

That doesn’t mean they want to be the only speakeasy-style cocktail bar in the city, however, as Punsalan explained.

“There’s plenty of space for tons of things and growth here in Charlotte. I just want them to be places that are true to what they are doing,” he said. “I go home at night and I lay my head on my pillow, I’m like, ‘You know what, we’re doing what we said we would do.’”

To experience Backstage Lounge for yourself, just enter through the barber shop.

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