Can you keep a secret? Comedy fans have been talking up the Basement, a speakeasy-style club sneakily hidden in a hotel
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Getting in is half the fun.
The west end of Portage Avenue is peppered with hotels — basic, budget-conscious accommodations catering to travellers making their way along the Trans-Canada Highway. One such hotel, however, is hiding a not-so-basic secret.
The Howard Johnson, a beige stucco number at the second-last set of lights before the Perimeter Highway, has all the usual amenities. There’s free continental breakfast, a sports bar off the lobby and a beer vendor out back.
There’s also a 6,000-square-foot Prohibition-style speakeasy hidden beyond a secret entrance styled to look like a janitor’s closet.
“(People) will come back a little frustrated, thinking you’ve sent them into the wrong room,” hotel assistant general manager Tim Hiebert says with a laugh.
The Basement Speakeasy and Comedy Lounge opened in early 2020 and has quietly become Winnipeg’s newest standup venue.
When Connor Ward and his business partner bought the Howard Johnson in 2019, they were intrigued by the large unused space in the basement. A former country bar, the room had been relegated to storage and was filled with years of accumulated junk. After numerous trips to the dump and conversations with family, an idea started to take shape.
“(People) will come back a little frustrated, thinking you’ve sent them into the wrong room.”–Tim Hiebert
“My dad’s a pilot and he loved speakeasies,” Ward says. “Everywhere he went he would go to a speakeasy.”
Ward scoured online marketplaces for vintage furniture and got to work revamping the room. Surprisingly, the former saloon’s wood-panelled walls, ’80s carpet and large brass-accented bar fit with the new theme.
After finding their way inside, patrons are met with a winding set of stairs and framed artwork on black walls. The DJ booth is concealed by a bookshelf and there are pool tables in one corner. Rows of plush, tufted couches face a red-curtained stage and the space is lit with chandeliers and candles. It is, undeniably, a vibe.
“Come for the show, stay for the room,” Hiebert says.
“It’s something a little bit different than what you would get at a… typical comedy club,” adds comedian and event producer Benji Rothman. “Once the show’s over people don’t really want to leave.”
Initially, the venue hosted a variety of live entertainment, but comedy quickly emerged as the frontrunner — burlesque shows and jazz concerts are also, occasionally, part of the lineup.
“We have such a good local comedy scene here and we never really had a room like this, especially on the weekends, to showcase all of that local talent,” Rothman says, adding that Winnipeg standup enthusiasts have found their way to the venue. “We have a following of really, really great fans that just love supporting comedy.”
The Basement has attracted an audience through a secretive social media presence and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing. Word has even spread to out-of-town comedians, who have started reaching out to book shows. Upcoming acts include local improv troupe Club Soda and comedians Ryan Williams of Kamloops, B.C. (featuring openers Tim Gray and Dana Smith), and Courtney Gilmour of Toronto.
Opening a themed, large-capacity venue one month before the pandemic hit Manitoba was a challenge, but the Basement has survived by virtue of its location. Although they’re wildly different business models, the hotel, beer vendor, sports bar and speakeasy have a symbiotic relationship.
‘We’ve been able to do a lot of really great things down here because of the consistency and the success we’ve had with every other aspect,” says Ward, who co-owns the Altona Hotel and started a sauce company and a ghost kitchen amid the pandemic. “We’re also able to employ our staff full time… they can work a few days upstairs and then they come down here and it’s this really neat, totally different thing.”
For Hiebert, who manages the bars at the Basement and Hat Tricks Sports Bar & Grill upstairs, weekend shifts include a lot of stairs.
“I’m constantly moving,” he says. “I just do laps to support where I can.”
While the stage might be the main attraction, a credible speakeasy needs a solid cocktail list. Hiebert’s goal was to keep it simple with a menu of high-end Prohibition-era drinks — the Smoked Old Fashion, infused with smoke from charred, whisky-soaked wood chips, is the bar’s signature. Other cocktails include a classic Rob Roy, Amaretto Sour, Negroni and French 75.
The Basement also has a small food menu with items such as beef carpaccio, caprese salad and a series of bruschetta-esque tapas.
The venue is open Friday and Saturday evenings. Visit basementwpg.com for a full list of upcoming events and to reserve tickets.
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Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.