Finding Mystery at a Timeless Bar in Nashua
It is an unseasonably warm November night as I make my way along Elm Street in Nashua, N.H., accompanied by two friends. We walk slowly, pausing to examine each closed storefront, scanning the quiet, empty alcoves for signs of inner life. We have been told that our destination, Nashua’s only speakeasy, lies hidden within one of them.
When we do find Codex, we know it. The storefront is plastered with reproductions of Prohibition-era newsprint and resembles a forgotten bookstore. We can make out music playing faintly from within and hear voices, though they sound too far away to be real. From the moment we step inside, there is something dreamlike about all of this. We enter into what appears to be a sterile, office-like hallway to find a woman reading in front of a large and curious bookshelf. She asks, “Are you here for the library? May I see your library cards?” Admittance is a secret rite of passage involving the odd-looking bookshelf and a riddle of sorts. In less than a minute, one of my friends, an engineer, solves the puzzle and we enter the bar.
Time slows. A Victrola plays Cab Calloway. Typewriters, a stately chestnut grandfather clock, and an upright player piano with ivory scrolls of music lying silently beside it are visible within the shadows. Antique books, sepia photographs and mirrored mosaics adorn the walls. Wingback chairs surround each small, candlelit table. I note a pink and mahogany chaise that reminds me of one my grandmother owned. We sit at the bar, across from murals of the poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.
The classics — the old-fashioned, the Moscow Mule, and gin and tonic — are all served here, but the repertoire includes specialty cocktails with names like “Where There’s Smoke” (mezcal, Anchor ryes, orange bitters, chocolate bitters), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (espresso vodka, sugar, fernet, Laphroaig rinse), “Managua” (spiced rum, fresh lime juice, brown sugar, pink peppercorn, Punt e Mes), and “Derringer” (Irish whiskey, house-made falernum, fresh lemon juice, Carpano Antica). I order a “Paper Plane” (Jim Beam, fresh lemon juice, Caffo amaro, Aperol), and the first sip is akin to waking up revitalized after a long night’s sleep — refreshing, satisfying, rare.
Codex’s versatile food menu proves to be equally intriguing. Divided into small plates, entrees, and desserts, each item offers a nimble balance of old school comfort and fresh ingenuity. There’s mac and cheese, made with “handmade pasta in a rich cheddar cheese sauce, topped with smoked Gruyere, arugula, pistou and tomato jam,” “Bacon and Eggs” (crispy pork belly over Parmesan grits, Dowie Farm duck egg, and red onion jam), mussels sauteed with leeks, pancetta, mushrooms, basil, butter and local IPA served with toasted bread. The menu notes that Codex’s ingredients are sourced locally from farms in Derry, Hollis and Mason, N.H. After deliberation, my friends decide on maple-aioli burgers, and I order the fantastically-named “Chicken Under a Brick,” accompanied by sauteed arugula, leeks and apples.
While waiting, our bartender, “Dottie” (not her real name, she explains, just her Codex “persona,” one of the Prohibition-era names used by the establishment’s employees), tells us the bar’s story. Codex was opened in late September 2015 and the spot has become a hub for locals and curious out-of-towners. “People have always appreciated that we can make classic drinks the old-fashioned way. We use real methodology and real instruments,” she tells us, gesturing at a long antique stirring spoon. “I’d like to think we approach things differently. We make everything we can from scratch — all our drink mixes, ingredients, components of meals. Our glassware is completely authentic. We pay attention to detail here.”
When our food arrives, I find myself in wholehearted agreement: There’s no mistaking the inherent craftsmanship of Codex’s approach, evident even in seemingly insignificant details. The hummus plate we share is gone within minutes, and one of my friends can’t stop talking about the freshness of the house-made ketchup. My entree is beautifully plated, a tiny work of art in which color and texture have been thoughtfully considered and arranged to complement decadent flavor. The brick-roasted chicken is robust, smoky and wonderful, but the dancing of brilliant orange and green around it is equally as compelling.
We eat slowly, get lost in conversation with other patrons, laugh a lot, drink. When I look down at my watch for the first time all night, two hours have passed.
After we finally cross the threshold back into the white hallway, I can’t help but wonder: Is there a place for the speakeasy in today’s increasingly technological, fast-paced world, a world that rejects the slowness, indulgence and whimsicality so essential to the speakeasy experience?
We exit to the quiet street, the dark night. Automatically, our hands reach for our phones. And I know the answer.