A Teetotaler's Review of Cape Town’s Art of Duplicity Speakeasy

by - May 27, 2021

Title: A Teetotalers Review of Cape Town’s Art of Duplicity Speakeasy


What is a speakeasy? 

That's the first question I am asked whenever I tell people about my visit to the Art of Duplicity. A speakeasy is a secret bar. They were originally created during the American prohibition of the 1920s when drinking was illegal so you had to do it in secret. 

In the last two decades, people (mostly overseas) have been opening bars behind laundromats, photo booths, vending machines, or even just behind an unsuspecting door somewhere down a dark alleyway with no signage, not because consuming alcohol is illegal, but because selling it this way makes for a cool gimmick that lures customers to you. It also creates a great word-of-mouth marketing strategy that requires very little effort on your part. Win-win!

Wow, I sound so critical! The truth is speakeasies are great, and the challenge of finding one and making it inside makes for a fun experience. If you’re too old for a nightclub but too young for a mid-life crisis, a visit to a speakeasy is the best way to convince yourself that you’re still hip! 

Exhibit A:

Excited people outside speakeasy
(Try not to be intimidated)

It’s a pity that South Africa can’t come up with ideas like this ourselves but at least when we jump on a bandwagon we sometimes do a really good job of it. The Art of Duplicity is number 88 on the World’s 50 Best Bars which is practically the Michelin Guide to drinking establishments, and therefore a huge achievement (despite the obvious mathematical confusion evident in this sentence). 

Where is the Art of Duplicity?

Well, it’s here:

Art of Duplicity speakeasy exterior

I know that helped a lot. It's a pleasure.

How to get inside the Art of Duplicity 

First, you head on over to their website and you make a booking. You will then be given a clue to find the place and a password. 

You probably already have a pretty good idea of its location from your source of word-of-mouth advertising, so go to the general vicinity. A bouncer guarding an alleyway is a pretty good indication that you have found the right place.

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Pro-tip (and clue): If you park in front of the nearby strip club, the bouncers will end up watching your car by default. If you’re lucky, like my friend Bron and I, you may even get a job offer. There you go, Ma, I have options! 
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When we found the bouncer in the place where we expected him to be, I was very excited so I spewed the password at him the first chance I got. He told me to save that for later and went to check the booking manifest. When he found our rather last minute booking, we were ushered down an alleyway strung with fake laundry and into the building through the functional toilet cubicle of the other establishment that shares some of the same space. (I’m not entirely sure, but I would imagine that the partial doubling up of the venue may explain the name.) 

People outside of secret bar in Cape Town

We were directed to a big metal door with a little slot. When the bouncer banged on the door, the peephole slid open and that was our cue to give the password. This time I wasn’t as prepared as I had been the first time, and it slammed shut in my face while I hesitated. Hospitality just isn't what it used to be! After our second attempt, we were allowed entrance. 

What to expect inside

Our host and bartender for the evening greeted us at the door and explained the password and how it relates to the US prohibition which began in 1920. 

When we asked him if they served alcohol during the local COVID-19-related prohibition of 2020, he said he could neither confirm nor deny that they did. We instantly understood this as code for “No, of course we didn’t serve alcohol! Like all other speakeasies that use the gimmick of not-so-secret secrecy to lure customers into what could hopefully be confused with an illicit establishment, we would never risk jeopardizing our alcohol license like that! But we won’t admit that because we don’t want to lose our fake street cred.” 

The bartender of course explained all of this in what sounded like a bad attempt at an American accent. I thought that might be part of the act but turns out he’s actually partially American. 

The Dresscode:

We were told to dress ’Mae West meets Al Capone’, but as we had just come from high tea at the Mount Nelson, I wasn't quite prepared. Bron managed to wear a dress that worked for both (not like she wouldn't look glamorous in a garbage bag), and I wore a floral dress appropriate for a 'modern-day colonial-throwback pinky-in the air ladies tea party' and an awkward black cardigan because it was the one warm thing I own that I thought would clash the least. I was, however, also wearing heels for the first time since 2019 so while I may not have been dressed like an extra from the Great Gatsby, I still felt fancy AF.

1920s themed Art of Duplicity speakeasy interior

The decor 

The Art of Duplicity's location in an 1894 Victorian building, definitely lends to the authenticity of the space. It was made to look like a storeroom with palettes and hessian bags, but a storeroom also decorated with velvet settees, beaded lampshades, books, antiques and mood lighting, with old Popeye cartoons projected on the back wall. Why would you want to watch cartoons anywhere else?

1920s themed bar Art of Duplicity interior, Cape Town

What are the drinks like?

Well, obviously you’re asking the wrong person! The only non-alcoholic drink on the menu was called 'The Jerk' which didn't sound like a drink appropriate for me because I’m nice. So, I told the bartender what flavours I enjoy and he whipped me up a signature drink. I named it ‘The Sharon’. Some bars put cherries in their drinks to indicate that they are virgin, mine had baby’s breath in it. I think that nicely conveyed the same message. 

I’m a little surprised that they only had one virgin drink on the menu. Being teetotal is becoming almost as popular among hipsters as 1920’s prohibition-themed speakeasies!

There was a really creative collection of drinks on the menu featuring hard liquor in keeping with the prohibition theme. Seriously, they didn’t even have wine and we’re in Cape Town! I certainly saw some interesting cocktails go past me. One had a ping-pong in it; a pretty good sign that it was probably not virgin! 

While I can't speak for the alcoholic cocktails, for what it’s worth, I'm pretty sure they wouldn’t be 88th in the world if their drinks were mediocre. They also served food but we were still full of scones. 

Travel Toy in Cape Town Speakeasy
And yes, I brought Rodrigo. He happened to be in my bag from earlier.

What about the entertainment? 

On nights where there is live music, there is a minimum charge of R200 per head. We were only informed of this minutes before the live music started when we were contemplating leaving but hadn’t quite reached our tab minimum. This information was delivered courtesy of the bartender who was starting to act a bit like that one non-alcoholic drink on the menu. That left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth but, I’m glad we stayed a bit longer. The music more than made up for it. 

We were entertained by a Jazz duo who were crazy good! They played a range of classics and even at least one original. I wish I got their name because their music was incredible. You could totally get lost in it sober.

Live Jazz music in Cape Town speakeasy Art of Duplicity

All the Useful Information Stuff:

Opening Times: Wednesday, Friday, Saturday: 5:00pm – 12:00am 

Contact info: 
Website: 170120.co.za

Art of Duplicity prices:
- Entrance is free.
- There's a minimum tab of R200 per head on nights with live music. 
- The drinks are on the pricier side but you get what you pay for. 

How to get to the Art of Duplicity:
If you’re from out of town or you just enjoy artfully crafted alcoholic beverages like a normal person - and you can figure out where the place is - Uber or another ride-sharing service is the way to go.  
If you’re like me, a local teetotaler with a car, the bouncer will probably keep an eye on your vehicle for you if you park it in view. 

What to wear:
Ideally ‘Mae West meets Al Capone’ as recommended. We haven’t had many excuses to dress up lately. Use this one. Do it!

What to bring:
Your password, your credit card and a sense of adventure.

Safety:
Do be cautious in the centre of town, especially at night. 

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