Take a step back in time

Published 4:34 am Friday, September 23, 2022

Story Amanda Larch | Photography Jeremy Holtzapfel

Stepping through the hidden door at Sal’s Italian Eatery and Speakeasy in Ashland transports visitors 100 years in the past to the days of Prohibition and bootlegging.

After finding success with their other business ventures, including Bombshells & Ales in Ashland and Bombshells, Burgers & BBQ in Huntington, adjacent to their Bare Arms Gun Range, Christy Bare and her husband opened The Union on Carter as a wedding and party venue.

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When another space opened a few blocks over that had two kitchens, they thought it would help with the catering side of The Union. Once they explored the space, though, they decided they could make something more out of it. Channeling their history of successful themed restaurants, they decided to tackle opening one more, this time turning their attentions to an Italian restaurant. Without dedicated staff and managers, Bare says none of it could be possible.

“When we bought this, I was furious; I was not ready to do another restaurant because restaurants are hard,” Christy Bare, co-owner of Sal’s, says. “Luckily, we have a great general manager who knows how to hire people; he’s really good about being able to find great workers. That took a little bit of the pressure off of me.”

Bare’s husband wanted something they hadn’t tried before and suggested a 1920s mobster-themed speakeasy. “We have a gun range, so we like stuff like that. We liked the ‘Sopranos’ vibe, that sort of stuff. Everything we were looking at was Al Capone,” Bare says.

Once they agreed on a theme, the couple traveled to get inspiration and ideas from other similarly themed restaurants.

“I didn’t really have plans for what it was going to look like, but when we do research, we always go out of town to a few other places to get ideas,” Bare says. “We go to big cities and think we need something like that here. When we bought this place, we had to darken it because you can’t have a mobster feel without that.”

The atmosphere and food of the restaurant is a little more upscale than some of their other businesses, and Bare says they hired experienced chef Ben Van Horn to plan the menu. Since opening Sal’s in April, Bare says they’ve had tremendous success and outstanding support.

“He’s got an extensive background at country clubs and with opening restaurants,” she says. “He came up with the entire menu, and we tweaked it a little bit. So far, the menu has been outstanding. People love the food.”

Footage from hundred-year-old baseball games and silent movies play at the bar to help make diners feel like they’ve stepped into the past, and jazz and other period-specific music wafts over the restaurant’s speakers. The décor consists of old photographs, dark lighting and interior, and even an authentic Tommy gun hanging below a picture of notorious mobster Al Capone.

The servers and bartenders don newsboy hats, suspenders and leather aprons, and many of the signature menu items and specialty drinks are named after 1920s slang and lingo.

“I think we could have bad food and people would still think they loved it because the vibe is so cool in here,” Bare laughs. “People love the music, and it looks really neat. Everybody’s really liked the atmosphere.”

They were almost finished with renovations before Bare realized they needed the speakeasy door— “you can’t have a speakeasy without speakeasy doors,” she says.

To make it seem more secretive, the Bares created a bakery space up front containing the hidden door, which hides the bar and is reminiscent of cover businesses for authentic speakeasies.

“Speakeasies in the 1920s had a cover business because alcohol was illegal,” Bare explains. “So, you walk in and that’s Sal’s Bakery.”

Many people have asked Bare about the titular Sal, and if he really existed, and she says she’s had fun creating a fictional character and backstory of a 1920s mobster. The name of the restaurant stems from something easy to remember and easy to search online.

“I came up with a Sal from back in the 1920s who was a mobster. I have a picture out front of him in the lobby, with a story about that actual Sal,” Bare says. “I adlibbed a little bit of restaurant history to make it tie in. When people walk in and see that, they think that there is a Sal.”

Owning Sal’s is a different experience than the Bares’ other businesses because it’s gotten the most attention for its theme, Bare says. They purchased an old car — named Miss Daisy — to place out front of the restaurant, which is also a huge hit with customers and serves as a little bit of free advertising.

“People love the theme. They love the car outside,” Bare says. “My husband bought the car off a lady, one of my mom’s friends. It was her husband’s who had passed away, and she was distraught that she was selling his car. Now, she’s probably our best customer. Everybody takes a picture with the car, so she couldn’t be happier that Miss Daisy is completely famous now.”

Bare says the food may be what she likes best about owning Sal’s Italian Eatery, though she also enjoys customers’ reactions to the restaurant and the changes it has undergone.

“It’s fun to watch people come in the front doors and say, ‘Wow, this place is a lot different than it’s ever been’ because it looked the same for the last 20 years,” she says. “People appreciate the fact that it’s different, and that’s how you get good business. People like to put it on Facebook, people love to take pictures; they advertise for you when you have a    cool place.”

The location of Sal’s Italian Eatery is a big draw for customers, especially those from out of town, Bare says.

“I always loved this building and where it was. It’s kind of off the beaten path of restaurants,” she says. “It’s got a cool vibe to where if people come in town, they want to go — they don’t want to go to a chain restaurant.”

Sal’s Italian Eatery is the same space as previous Ashland restaurants, like Chimney Corner Café and most recently Blazers Restaurant and Bakery. It’s special to the Bares because they had their wedding reception in one of the space’s iterations.

“We were customers of this restaurant anyway; it’s been a restaurant for 20 years,” Bare says. “I was friends with the girl that owned it, and it was a no brainer whenever it came up for sale. Our business three blocks away needed to do catering; that’s really what we thought it would be used for. It’s taken off and been pretty successful, just the Italian restaurant.”

Sal’s Italian Eatery and Speakeasy is located at 1624 Carter Avenue in Ashland, Kentucky.