Canary Underground takes flight


Paul Hansen

Canary Underground takes decoration takes after the 1920s ‘ style.

George Kosinski, Staff Writer

Walking down the steps into the Canary Underground Speakeasy, one immediately enters a space unlike any other in Grinnell. Swing jazz hums in the background; floorboards creak softly overhead; rich, yellow light casts a warm glow throughout a room that feels as if it could have been lifted from Gatsby’s world of 1920s opulence. 

A color scheme of deep navy blue and iridescent gold adorning the walls, as well as matching velvet furniture, is complemented by Art Deco patterns, ornately framed mirrors and a series of sepia-toned photographs depicting the jazz musicians, flappers and raucous partying for which the prohibition era is famous today. This intimate atmosphere lends an air of secrecy to Grinnell’s new speakeasy which gives it an authentic feel.

Canary Underground Speakeasy is located directly beneath Prairie Canary, accessible via a staircase in the main dining room. It has been open to the public for over a month now, following a soft opening then a larger private opening on Dec. 22  of last year.

“It’s an idea that’s been floating around in my head for a while,” said owner and Executive Chef Paul Durr.

Durr said he had been exploring different options that did not result in much. He said that the reimagination of the space has been a long time in the making, commencing in the spring of last year.

Durr also said that though he and his wife had initially sought a more industrial aesthetic, they ended up choosing the theme of the speakeasy.

Durr said they wanted a 1920s decoration style, which he said looks fitting for a bar, and would help the establishment stand out. “I also made a point to have representations of African Americans in the prohibition-era pictures on the wall, since that is my background,” he said.

Alex Phillips, manager of Canary Underground Speakeasy as well as the nearby Hometown Heroes, is the mastermind behind the speakeasy’s unique drinks menu. Though it is connected to the restaurant Prairie Canary upstairs, each establishment has its own unique menu with its own signature drinks. Phillips said that many of the cocktails on offer at Canary Underground Speakeasy are named after those popular during the 1920s.

“Some of them are inspired by prohibition-era cocktails, but a lot of them are just what I thought would taste good after years of experience trying different things together,” Phillips said.

Durr and Phillips each focused on developing an extensive selection of high-quality bourbon, scotch and rye around which they plan to shape their menu.

We try to make the cocktails stand apart a little bit, with smoke bubbles, and [we are] just trying to make them as creative as possible. We want to offer things that you might not see every day.

— Alex Phillips, manager of Canary Underground

They also pointed towards an array of creatively designed mocktails, which they hope will encourage people to attend and enjoy the experience of going out, regardless of how old they are or if they choose to drink or not.

Ultimately, the two hope that the creative flair of their drinks, some of which come served with smoke bubbles on top, will bring new excitement to Grinnell’s nightlife scene.

“Especially with the smoke bubble, you get a very good reaction, and it’s really nice to see that you created this fun experience for a customer,” Phillips said. “We pride ourselves on being one of the few places where you can get a genuinely handcrafted cocktail, made with fresh ingredients, and something that might be a little bit different from what you can find just anywhere else. It’s not just a Jack and Coke — there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is just a little bit more,” he said.

Canary Underground Speakeasy also offers a short bites menu, featuring appetizer items such as a charcuterie board, hummus and egg-rolls — most for just over $10. Like the drinks exclusive to the speakeasy, the menu is not available at Prairie Canary.

Durr is happy with how things have gone so far, but he is also expecting business to pick up more as the speakeasy gains more attention as a space to socialize in town.

Durr and Phillips have tried to cultivate a thoroughly unique atmosphere.

“We don’t have any TVs in here, and that’s purposeful. We want people to come and just sit and converse, and hopefully they stay off their phones and have one-on-one interaction,” Durr said. “We’ve got some games set up so that if people get tired of talking, they can pick one up and play. That’s kind of the low-key atmosphere we’re going for.”

The two also said they hope to maintain an air of exclusivity, garnering interest via word of mouth just as speakeasies did during prohibition.

Both Durr and Phillips hope to attract the business of Grinnell students specifically. Canary Underground Speakeasy will run a college night on Wednesdays, from open to close, offering $3 off craft cocktails and half price on appetizers when students show their Pioneer One-Cards.

“Hopefully, we can encourage people to head off campus and try the speakeasy out,” Durr said.

There is also a happy hour every Friday from 6-7 p.m., said Durr. He said Canary Underground Speakeasy will be open after 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and after 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

“It’s been a while since a new bar, or anything like that, opened here. Hopefully, when people hop around and hit different places, we can be one of those places on that list,” said Phillips.