Fellini's #9 owner Jacie Dunkle and bartender Jennifer Pendleton are all smiles.
Folks take a smoke break during the show.
Photo by Dave McNair
Walking up the stairs to the second floor of Fellini's #9 restaurant (where former owner Chief Gordon warned his customers never to go), one starts to get a sense of what it must have been like to step out for a drink during the Prohibition era. Standing at the top of the stairs, one feels that sense which is heightened by a barred door with a speakeasy-style slot. When we knock, the slot slides open to reveal the smiling face of bartender Joan Dunkle.
"What's the password?" she says.
"It's on the door," Dunkle instructs.
Indeed, unlike the real days of Prohibition, the password, which changes from night to night, is posted on a sign on the door.
The brainchild of Joan and her mother, Fellini's #9 owner Jackie Dunkle, the 9 1/2 Lounge quietly opened several weeks ago. The duo got the idea when they visited the "speakeasy" at the Patterson House in Nashville. Then they visited other "speakeasys" that have popped up over the last few years to cash in on the aura of Prohibition-era nightlife that has been brought into vogue recently by Ken Burns' new documentary on the nationwide crack-down on alcohol leading into the Great Depression.
They visited The Gibson and Last Exit in DC, and the Violet Hour in Chicago. They nabbed some mafia-style lounge furniture from a place in New Jersey, installed some mood lighting, re-did the bar, and then went to work to come up with an exotic drink list, including original concoctions like the Betty White, Al Capone, and Return to Normalcy.
They also serve Blk Water, a fulvic acid-laced concoction that supposedly helps users hydrate faster than regular water and claims to "balance your cells," which makes a nice breather between drinks.
There's food, too, and it's served until closing; stuff like paninis, desserts, meat and veggie skewers, specialty popcorns, and a grappa-fueled flaming cheese and jam app that's worth it just for the presentation.
"Nobody sets things on fire like we do," Jacie Dunkle jokes.
Indeed, while the 9 1/2 Lounge is relatively quiet on a Sunday night, downstairs the Hogwaller Ramblers have fired up their instruments and are banging out the rock-grass that has made them local icons. (A practical reason for the door slot, says Joan, is to preserve that contrasting relative quiet upstairs and make sure a big crowd doesn't come lumbering into the small space all at once. There's a dress code, too. Not a strict one, but one that suggests you leave the baseball hat and the hoodie at home.)
In one configuration or another, the Ramblers, with frontman Jamie Dyer (who has become a de facto spokesperson for the Occupy Charlottesville movement), have been playing in town for twenty years. Helping Dyer look good now are Sandy Gray on lead, Rick LaRue on violin, Jimmy Stelling on banjo, and Bud Bryant on bass.
Years ago, it was not uncommon to run into Dyer on the street and get an earful about how corrupt the American banking system was, how there was a conspiracy of greed that would all come crashing down soon. Oftentimes you'd walk away not quite understanding what he was talking about. We understand now.
On Sunday, however, we got an earful of jammin' tunes from Dyer and company, though we're sure they were within earshot of those sleeping in tents in Lee Park.
At one point, we noticed that bartender Jennifer Pendleton was smiling and rocking her head to the music as she pulled drafts– after having worked a 10am brunch shift that day.
"I love working at this place," she says. "It's like a big family."