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Speakeasy, complete with secret entrance, opening soon downtown

The city’s planning committee has unanimously approved funding to assist with renovations of the former Northern Life building at 158 Elgin St.

Offering a blast from the past harking back to an era it’s unlikely anyone’s old enough to remember first-hand, a prohibition-era-style speakeasy is opening downtown.

The Night Owl speakeasy will be accessed on a reservation-only basis via two entry points. 

The back door will feature a phone booth patrons can use to ring a bartender who can let them in, and a second entrance is being kept a secret, to be experienced.

The speakeasy will be accompanied by a new Books and Beans café in the basement of 158 Elgin Street.

With its owners currently waiting on a liquor license, the speakeasy is not exactly the same as an illegal prohibition-era venue, but keeps up its appearances throughout the basement space.

Rather than describe the space succinctly, building co-owner Dan Guillemette asked that leave it up to readers’ imagination, though it’s fair to say the dim lighting joins vintage-style furniture and fixtures in offering a unique atmosphere to the hidden space. 

Also tucked away in the basement, the café is a new version of the former Books and Beans café that used to operate out of the space now housed by The Alibi Room

“It’s a good front — I keep calling it a front for the speakeasy,” business owner Liana Bacon said with a laugh. “It’s been a warm welcome back for our customers, because it was around for 15 years through four different owners, so it has a big history.”

The original café opened in 1995 and operated until 2010, when Bacon, who’d owned the business since 2005, decided to close it for career reasons.

“It was a decision I had to make at the time, and always thought it would be fun to get back into it,” she said, adding that her old customer base appears to agree with the sentiment.

“I knew people would remember it, I didn’t realize how many people would have so many stories about the time they spent there.”

The building at 158 Elgin Street was the home of the Northern Life newspaper for more than 40 years. Northern Life’s parent company, Laurentian Publishing, was sold to Village Media and became the online-only and Northern Ontario Business websites in 2020.

Guillemette, a partner at Centreline Architecture, is one of three partners who now own the building, which has undergone significant renovations in recent months.

During Monday’s planning committee meeting, the city’s elected officials unanimously approved a series of Strategic Core Areas Community Improvement Plan grants and loans toward making the building’s renovations a reality.

“I’m delighted to see these,” meeting chair and Ward 10 (downtown) Coun. Fern Cormier said during the meeting, adding the CIP has been evolving over the years, with more changes expected in the future. “The results we’re seeing from it is exactly why it’s there.”

Between building facade improvements and renovations to the building’s interior, its owners are receiving $74,000 through various streams of the city’s CIP, toward its total cost of approximately $395,000. 

They’re also receiving a $47,500 interest-free loan, which Guillemette said will help them get into the financial black more quickly.

The municipal incentives programs are intended to revitalize targeted neighbourhoods, which Guillemette said the funds they receive will contribute toward.

“We’re not by any means some big conglomerate developer who’s trying to buy stuff up,” he said. “We’ve invested our own money to bring something to downtown and hopefully revive the perception of it.

“I’m hoping it’s going to encourage people that the general public is investing in downtown. ... We’re expecting to get a lot of professionals to stick around downtown, like lawyers who are here anyway, to come over afterwards.”

The main floor includes a salon and tattoo shop, Centreline Architecture fills out the second floor, and Books and Beans café and The Night Owl speakeasy are downstairs.

The café is already in operation from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, though Bacon is considering extending its hours. Its outdoor patio is expected to open next week. 

The Night Owl will be open in the evenings on a reservation basis, and will open as soon as they receive their liquor license, which Guillemette said could happen any day now.

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for