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Secret Speakeasy

Arizona Biltmore Mystery Room

One night a month, an upstairs room at the Arizona Biltmore becomes a portal to prohibition-style tippling 

By Suzanne Wright

Tonight’s pass phrase is “Keep your heart above your head and your eyes wide open.”

The male half of a couple from England stumbles getting out this mouthful of words, so his companion consults her smart phone and reads the secret sentence for him. The bartender listens patiently.

We’re on the second floor in an intimate, unmarked room at the Arizona Biltmore resort. It’s a speakeasy called the Mystery Room, and it’s only open on the last Sunday of the month. The barkeep, Shane Wood, begins welcoming in-the-know guests at 8 p.m. An hour later the room is full; folks are running tabs and getting loose.

The present-day incarnation of the Mystery Room is not so different from its prohibition-era predecessor—aside from the patrons’ attire and the fact that access is gained as much through social media as word-of-mouth. Once you’re in, the room feels like a private club, just as it was nearly a century ago.

Back in the day—before the advent of refrigerated air—the room was the annex to then-general manager Harry Boyles’s apartment; it was where he entertained friends with illegal hooch. Guests sipped cocktails by candlelight and were warmed by a roaring fire from October through April.

On this night, Wood whips up cocktail for me called the Bonnie (as in Bonnie and Clyde), with muddled strawberries and thyme sweetening a generous pour of gin. The bar is abbreviated, limited to the staple liquors of the speakeasy era: gin and rye. (Although Wood admits he “cheats with a nice bottle of scotch.”)

Some regulars, Wood says, dress in period costume, mostly in the summer months. I could see how the Mystery Room might inspire you to slip into the role of a roaring ’20s tippler.

How, I ask, did the original Mystery Room elude police raids?

Wood explains that in the Biltmore’s early days, its location eight miles north of downtown Phoenix meant it was essentially in the boonies. A bellman would sit atop the porte cochere, keeping watch. When he saw the police car coming—and it was easy to see the headlights in the undeveloped Sonoran Desert—he signaled the law’s approach by flashing a spotlight on the stained glass ceiling. Revelers then knew it was time to scatter.

Looking up, I see the stained-glass ceiling remains.

My questioning and upward gazing draws the attention of a colorful trio of local bon vivants: Brian, an IT executive; Carolyn, a healthcare sales rep; and Dennis Yellowhorse Jones, who refers to himself as “Chief”. Dennis is wearing a whopper of a turquoise-and-silver cuff, a fringed jacket, a painted cowboy hat and scuffed boots. He extends his hand and introduces himself as the host of a local radio show called “The Real Deal” and an ambassador to the Washington Redskins. A resident of Paradise Valley, he’s a regular at The Mystery Room, which reopened in late 2013 after an 80-year hiatus.

The gang had started their bar crawl earlier in the evening in Arcadia. While Brian and Dennis are repeat guests, Carolyn, like me, is new to the scene. Dennis is holding court and buying rounds. Fueled by the strong lubricants, we are soon socializing like old pals, exchanging emails and swapping stories.

I demur after the second round. Unlike several guests in the Mystery Room, I’m not retiring to a room at the Biltmore at evening’s end but rather driving north to my home in Cave Creek. I bid Dennis and his friends a good night and head downstairs to Frank & Albert’s to put a little something on my stomach—in this case, a meltingly tender mole-braised short rib with decadent butterscotch pudding—besides gin and muddled strawberries.

After all, I don’t have a bellman on the lookout for the police as I head back home.

About the author: Suzanne Wright

Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.