At first glance, it looks like a normal cabinet in a historic hotel’s upscale coffee shop. Nothing special. But then we notice a velvet rope. And a person standing guard checking ID’s. And people disappearing into that not-so-ordinary cabinet.
We want in.
So we follow the initiated few and are quickly swallowed by the darkness of a secret passage. A rabbit on the wall leads the way to the bottom of a winding staircase. As we step through the entryway, we’re met with the smell of incense. Quiet conversation floats in the air. There’s an occasional clink of glass. The lights are dim. An array of candles adds an air of mystique. It’s a secret world reminiscent of a Gilded Age past. This is In Confidence, Des Moines’ newest speakeasy.
The bar is located in Hotel Fort Des Moines. Founded in 1919, the hotel is included on the National Register of Historic Places. Famous past guests include musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and even Elvis Presley. Thirteen presidents including Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have also stayed the night. The hotel recently underwent a multi-million dollar renovation that restored the building to its original glamor – including paying homage to its seedy past. There is a longstanding myth floating around that the building used to have a suite on the top floor where many would gather and drink during the Prohibition Era.
Today, In Confidence pays tribute to that legend. The bar exudes 1930s sophistication with a hint of something more whimsical. From the colorful cushioned chairs to the cuckoo-esque clock on the wall – and of course, the rabbit in the stairwell – it seems obvious that the bar’s theme took a touch of inspiration from Alice in Wonderland.
That even shows up in the waggish drinks. The most popular one on the menu is Pretty In Pink ($16), a martini made from vodka, mumm napa brut, lime juice, mint, raspberries and simple syrup. I got one and I can confirm – it’s delicious.
My friend Charleigh and I also tried a Mata Hari ($16), which Charleigh described as “sour and springy.” After a sip, I disagreed. We eventually concluded that it tasted more like winter spices, with that touch of cardamom warmth.
“The drinks were very fancy and elegant,” Charleigh said. “I loved all the details, from the rosebuds in my drink to the intricacies of the glasses.”
Our server, Steven, recommended the Smoke(d) Break ($22), which includes six-year-old rye and brandied cherries. He also gave a recommendation for an off-menu drink that he came up with. Sadly, we’d already secured our drinks for the evening, so we passed on them – this time. Every bartender has their own secret signature drink, though, and inquisitive minds with a penchant for nosiness can discover them all.
It’s difficult to believe that this fanciful hidden lounge used to be the hotel’s basement storage space. The only remaining indicators are the pipes running across the ceiling, the exposed brick walls and the concrete pillars.
“The very first time I walked into the Hotel Fort Des Moines and saw the basement area, I had the idea of a speakeasy,” said Raj Patel, the owner of the hotel. “I’ve seen it done in other cities throughout the world and knew we could have this as a special addition for our guests and the community of Des Moines.”
The space is popular for parties, with a special curtained alcove dedicated to groups of around 20. It’s a gorgeous room with a wrap-around tufted sofa, velvety chairs and an assortment of unique pillows. If you want this space for your next birthday party, be prepared to pull out your checkbook – the room can only be reserved with a $1,000 drink minimum. But if you bring nineteen of your closest friends, that brings it down to $50 each. Happy birthday, indeed!
The bar is open Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Steven said that the busiest nights tend to be Thursdays and Saturdays. Despite the crowds, you should definitely try to visit on a Thursday. That’s when you can expect live jazz music from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Spending time at In Confidence feels like stepping into another world – another era. From the fancy cocktails to artful decor, everything about this bar transports the visitor to something unfamiliar. For those looking to live out their Gatsby fantasy – or who just want a great drink – this is the place for you.