Turn on the Light

by Mimi Montgomery

photographs by Keith Isaacs

If you walk down Hargett Street past The Architect bar, you may notice a single green light glowing above its door. It’s not a relic from a bygone era or an homage to The Great Gatsby. It’s an invitation.

Subtle, but that’s the point. The Green Light doesn’t need signs or logos – it’s a speakeasy. Opened in 2013, the space is located behind a wall in a corner of The Architect, tucked behind a bookcase that opens to reveal its secret location.

While clandestine in theory, the bar has actually been widely celebrated. In 2015, it was named among Architectural Digest’s “Ten of the best speakeasies across America” and Thrillist’s “21 most secret bars in America.”

While it shares a 1922-era building and former architecture office with The Architect, its identity is completely separate. “The Architect is a really busy place; people don’t even realize how cool it looks because it’s so busy at night,” says Local Icon Hospitality owner Jon Seelbinder, who owns both spots as well as the nearby LevelUp, Virgil’s Tacos, Linus & Pepper’s, and Little City Brewing.

In contrast, Seelbinder says The Green Light’s unique setting (and its craft cocktails) are the bar’s focus. “I wanted to create … an elusive, secretive bar that people could sneak off to.” Inside the 32-seater, lights are low and music takes a backseat to drinks and conversation. Windows overlooking Hargett Street are bolstered by cozy banquette seating (upholstered by Raleigh’s Rainbow Upholstery) and small tables.

Then, of course, there’s the bar itself. Reclaimed wood from a 1903 Johnston County general store flanks the front, and planks on its footrests are from a nearby historically black schoolhouse. Behind it stands the guy you want to talk to, bartender Geoffrey Cunningham. Not sure what you want? No problem – Cunningham likes to work one-on-one with his customers to figure out exactly which drink they’d like best.

“I think of myself as a little mad scientist,” he says, grabbing bottles from the shelf behind him. He likens it to a chef’s spice rack, but thinks like a chemist, giving a quick rundown of the five taste palates and juxtaposing them with the 400 receptors in the nose. The ideal cocktail is found in the intersection of the two, he says. It’s his job to find that balance. He doesn’t think of drinks in terms of recipes, and he sees a cocktail menu as suggestion, not law; he’d rather dabble in experimental chemistry, mixing flavors and spirits to create the best formula possible.

“I try to learn new things every day,” he says.

If you can’t make it into The Green Light yourself, Cunningham recently whipped up a drink recipe for Walter readers to try at home. He says the idea for this drink, which he’s named Trinidad Cocoa, has been whirling in his brain for years, ever since he tried Zaya Gran Reserva rum. (Plus, he’s always wanted a reason to buy a blowtorch.)

It’s a warm drink that makes an excellent nightcap, combining rum, cream, and hot cocoa. Amaretto-soaked marshmallows covered in almonds and caramelized (with said blowtorch, or over the stove, or with a garden-variety butane candle-
lighter) top it off.  It’s delicious, whimsical, and a little bit unusual – Cunningham’s sweet spot.

And Steelbinder’s. “We don’t want to become stagnant; we want to continue to breath life into this,” says Steelbinder. “It’s an ongoing labor of love for us, and it’s been really fun to watch it play out from what I’d hoped and dreamed it would be, and it really being what that dream was.”

108 E. Hargett St.; Monday – Sunday 5 p.m. – 2 a.m.; architectbar.com/the-green-light

Trinidad Cocoa

Footed 8 ounce glass (or any glass that can hold a hot drink)

1 1/2 ounces Zaya Gran Reserva rum

4 1/2 ounces hot chocolate*

½ ounce amaretto

2 large marshmallows

Slivered almonds

Add rum to glass, then fill with hot chocolate until almost full. Add amaretto on top as a floater. Soak two marshmallows in amaretto, caramelize them (either with a blowtorch or over the stove), roll them in almonds, then use as cocktail garnish. Serve.

*Hot chocolate

Serves 6

10 heaping teaspoons 100 percent unsweetened cocoa powder

16 ounces heavy cream

14 ounces water

Mix 1 ounce water with cocoa powder in medium saucepan to create a paste. Add heavy cream to paste mixture and stir, making sure all cocoa is thoroughly mixed. Add remaining water and place on stove to warm to desired heat. Do not boil or overheat mixture.